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Learning to be together alone

"Learning to be alone is part of growing up. Nick Luxmoore reflects on his role as counsellor in guiding young people through this important stage on the journey to adulthood"

Volume 20
Issue 1
February 2009

  • Category: Features

With the current emphasis on the importance of the relationship in therapeutic thinking and practice, are we in danger of ignoring the human need for separateness and individuality?

  • The teachings of solitude

  • by
  • Manu Bazzano
  • Oh blessed aloneness, the only bliss!’ Francis of Assisi

    Last July, in the course of PCE 2008 (the 8th World Conference for Person-Centred and Experiential Psychotherapy and Counselling at the University of East Anglia), I attended a seminar by Chris Walton1 in which he related his research on the relationship between humans and the natural world. He applied Carl Rogers’ six conditions for therapeutic change to the nonhuman sphere, or the environment, perceived as a place where we can undergo a shift, a change of heart.

    He told participants of his work at the Eco-Study Centre, where children are being introduced to nature and the wilderness, to the ‘teachings of solitude’. Children and facilitators, during their excursions and experiences in the natural world, find the ‘magic spot’ where a child can learn the ‘teachings of solitude’.

    Some of these accounts felt very moving: after one of these experiences in nature, a young girl, who had never wanted to write anything before, wrote two full pages recording her wonder at the sight of a starry sky at night. For Walton, we humans are the clients – incongruent, distressed – and the earth the healer. I found the work inspiring for two reasons: first of all the inclusion of the wider sphere of the natural world in therapy is in itself refreshing for it opens up the confines of the therapy room. And secondly, such positive emphasis on solitude seems slightly at variance, and refreshingly so, with the current leaning in favour of the relational and the dialogical in therapy.

    The longing for union and the longing for autonomy
    Relatedness is of course a given. We are in relation even when we find ourselves alone. In existential therapy at least, there is no solid, separate self but instead being-in-the-world. As individuals, we operate at all times within a rich and complex web of relations, since we all are facets of the great diamond. Could it be, however, that by understanding in therapy the relational domain solely as dialogue and encounter, we miss out on the value of solitude? There appear to be two fundamental longings in human beings: the first one is the yearning for union, the desire to bring back the lost bliss of oneness; the second longing is for space and autonomy, the desire to satisfy our equally powerful need for separateness and individuality. For Louise Kaplan2 – as for Margaret Mahler3 – all human love and dialogue is an attempt to reconcile these two longings. Kaplan calls this very attempt to reconcile these two polarities ‘constancy’.

    Such reconciliation is crucial at a psychological level, for constancy represents the ability to unite love and anger, attraction and aversion, the ability to go on respecting someone even though they might no longer provide us with the happiness and approval we crave. It is also crucial at a more general level, for constancy stands for the integration of our longing for the sublime (awakening, insight, wisdom) with the equally important need to attend to the down-to-earth affairs of everyday existence. This second aspect too can be easily overlooked, as I have learned over 28 years of experience within Zen Buddhist and other spiritual communities.

    It is all too easy, caught up by the heady pursuit of ‘spiritual enlightenment’, to neglect the groceries and the gas bills, as well as the very basic tenets of human interaction, all part of the fabric of the everyday.4 One-sided attachment to the oneness of spiritual experience, however wonderful, is an imbalanced state, the spindrift gaze unto heaven. And the same might apply to a bias towards the dialogical in therapy at the expense of autonomy and solitude.

    At present, most therapeutic orientations seem to agree on the fact that the relationship is the key factor in therapy.
    Recognising the importance of the therapeutic relationship has been pivotal in making the profession of counselling and psychotherapy more democratic and in tune with the times. We have come a long way from an initial attitude founded on the ‘father principle’5 – an essentially authoritarian, patriarchal mode that conceived of the therapist as ‘expert’ – gradually moving towards the maternal domain (where the therapist played the role of midwife), and finally to our current era of ‘the siblings’, in which there is a fundamental symmetry between patient and therapist.6

    Oneness and separateness
    Such outcome was long awaited, desirable, and inevitable: the therapist has been stripped of her authority and has gone to meet her clients face-to-face, equally. Empathy, congruence, mutual trust and ‘being with’ have rightly become all important. Relatedness is all. However, relatedness is made up of the two elements of oneness and separateness. Why is it that terms such as self-reliance, individuation, and solitude seem to have lost currency in contemporary therapeutic discourse? Of course the relationship is important.

    But we need to honour both its two components – oneness and separateness. Within dialogical therapy, however (a term I use in order to identify the current trend in therapeutic thinking and practice), the human need for autonomy risks being ignored. Even Martin Buber,7 posthumously (and unwittingly) designated as champion of dialogical therapy, had something to say in favour of autonomy and solitude or, as he calls it, of ‘inner-worldly monastery’: ‘A man,’ he writes, in an appreciative and critical appraisal of Kierkegaard, ‘must let himself be helped from time to time by an “inner-worldly monastery’’.’ And he adds: ‘Our relations to creatures incessantly threaten to get encapsulated.’ He stresses the importance of ‘loneliness in the midst of life’, of finding ‘hostelries’ which would ‘help us to prevent the connection between the conditioned bonds and the one unconditioned bond from slackening.’

    What Buber sees as the danger of being ‘encapsulated’, the pioneering childpsychologist Margaret Mahler saw as ‘symbiotic psychosis’, the term she used to identify the pathology of some of her young clients – as troubling and painful a phenomenon as the opposite tendency towards isolation. Van Kalmthout8 has highlighted how recent developments in psychopathology seem to stress the importance of these two polarities: the pathologies of fusion and distance, of oneness and separateness. Healing in the individual points towards a balance of these two polarities, for neither symbiosis nor isolation are desirable conditions. ‘A balanced theory of personality change,’ Van Kalmthout writes, ‘should recognise both our need for autonomy and our need for belongingness.’8 The same perhaps could be applied to therapy as a whole, seen in this context as an organismic and cultural entity that – as any organism – sways this way and that in its struggle towards equilibrium. Could therapy culture be suffering at present from a compulsion towards symbiosis? Could it be that we need to redress the balance in favour of autonomy and individuality?

    The courage to be an individual
    The idea of a person is crucial in Rogers’ thinking, although he used it mainly as a protest ‘against the… dehumanisation of education, of a lot of religion, of military life, of many aspects of business.’9 Some understand ‘person’ in its somewhat negative meaning of ‘persona’ or mask.

    I understand ‘person’ as ‘individual’, one endowed with ‘individuality’. Individuality is not individualism (the allegedly self-sufficient, defensive and cocksure personality of John Wayne). There is another meaning to individuality: to become an individual means to depart. The word ‘individual’ is etymologically related to ‘widow’, both words deriving from the Latin videre, to part.10, 11 Another symbol for individuality is that of becoming an orphan, an exile, of breaking parental and tribal influences, something that requires tremendous courage and self-determination. For Augustine, ‘To be a widow or orphan relates one to God.’10, 11 This often means a painful breaking away from conformity, convention, the cherished traditions and superstitions of one’s ‘tribe’ of origin, and finding what Rogers calls one’s ‘internal locus of evaluation’12.

    Respecting the autonomy of the client
    The other important implication of individuality is its essential otherness,13 the sheer unfamiliarity of another person who can never be truly known, who will always remain a mystery. The client is forever unknowable, forever other, and forever separate. Such separation constitutes her dignity and humanity. Of all delusions, thinking that I have ‘understood’ my client is perhaps the most insidious. Many would agree, I believe, that seeing the client as an ‘object’ of study (whether as a bundle of drives, a carrier of symptoms and problems to be solved, or one to be behaviourally and cognitively re-programmed) would be equal to an inappropriate use of power. Wanting to ‘know the client’, however (because he or she is somehow ‘similar to me’), might also be a form of dominance, albeit relational and well intentioned.

    And the same would apply to that other doubtful aspiration, of wanting to ‘become one with the client’ through ‘love’ or ‘spirituality’. In order to provide genuine therapeutic support, the space between self and other needs to be maintained and even cultivated, and the autonomy of the client – her ability to find a path towards healing and self-determination – respected and honoured.

  • Manu Bazzano is a Zen monk, a person centred counsellor and psychotherapist in private practice, working towards full accreditation, a tutor at the NSPC (New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling) Waterloo, London and workshop facilitator. His latest book, Buddha is Dead: Nietzsche and the Dawn of European Zen, is published by Sussex Academic Press. Email

  • References:

    1. Walton C. Humans and the more than human community: earth education and the therapeutic conditions. Presentation at the PCE 2008 8th World Conference for Person-Centred and Experiential Psychotherapy and Counselling, University of East Anglia; 2008.
    2. Kaplan L. Oneness and separateness: from infant to individual. London: Jonathan Cape; 1979.
    3. Mahler M. On human symbiosis and the vicissitudes of individuation. New York: International Universities Press; 1968.
    4. Beck CJ. Everyday zen: love and work. San Francisco: Harper; 1989.
    5. Holmes J. John Bowlby and attachment theory. London: Routledge; 1995.
    6. Bly R. The sibling society. Addison-Wesley; 1996.
    7. Buber M. Between man and man. London: Fontana; 1961.
    8. Kalmthout M van. Personality change and the concept of the self. In Thorne B, Lambers E (eds) Person centred therapy: a European perspective. London: Sage; 1998.
    9. Rogers C (1981) in Schmid P ‘On becoming a person-centred approach: a person-centred understanding of the person’. In Thorne B, Lambers E (eds) Person-centred therapy: a European perspective London: Sage; 1998.
    10. Edinger E. Ego and archetype. Boston: Shambala; 1972.
    11. Bazzano M. ‘A true person of no status: Zen and the art of the person centred approach’ presentation at 8th World Conference for Person-Centred and Experiential Psychotherapy and Counselling 2008, University of East Anglia.
    12. Rogers C. On becoming a person. London: Constable; 1961.
    13. Lévinas E. ‘Separation as life’ in Totality and infinity: an essay on exteriority. Trans Lingis A. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press; 1969.

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