Counselling: a journey in experiential learning


Heather Godfrey P.G.C.E., B.Sc., F.I.F.A


 Published in the Aromatherapy Times: Summer 2005: vol. 1 no. 65: p 10-12.  Updated April 2019


The following represents a synopsis of my experiential journey during a three-year study of Counselling (and subsequently as a professional practitioner and teacher).  Applying these skills, I have come to realise, serves to enrich my practice, awareness and development in terms of the student-client-therapist and, in fact, all my relationships.

Reflecting on my experience of formal study (although the process of inner discovery appears perpetual – I’m not sure where it begins or if it ever ends), I see various insights were encapsulated and revealed through journeying along this orchestrated path of learning that, not only influence my practice, but also my day to day life: some practical, some emotional, and some spiritual (spiritual in this context relates to my inner beingness).

As in the Gestalt ‘figure and ground’ (Clarkson, 1998), every so often certain words seem to come into the foreground of my conscious awareness. These words are usually linked to an understanding or realisation and seem to linger as if to accentuate, reinforce and crystalise the significance of their meaning. One of these words is ‘synergy’, another ‘catalyst’, ‘scenario’ is yet another. I find myself including these words in my language at any opportunity.   I feel as though I am in a ‘perpetual’ (another such word) state of growth and unfolding: like an ever-opening lotus or lily floating on top of the murky pond water, a ‘paradox’ (another word). On the one hand, my everyday life and experiences, on the other, my awareness and spiritual development; like a diamond in the mud.   Nothing seems to be accidental, everything appears to retain a purposeful meaning’, to encapsulate a message for me intended to assist my spiritual (and practical) awareness and development. Sometimes I’m awake to this, sometimes I’m asleep or distracted, so the message appears to be repeated at another time in a different way; what ever it takes to get my attention.   Sometimes the message may be in a conversation, a book, a film or an everyday experience. Sometimes I encounter a special person whose ‘way of being’ inspires me. It could be a stranger I only meet once or someone I know well. Just as described by James Redfield is his book, ‘The Celestine Prophecy’ (1995).

Carl Rogers (1902-1987), who was introduced to me through my study of counselling, became one of those who touched and inspired my spirit, my ‘being’ within. Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931) is another, also the author Paulo Coelho (1947 to date), and James Redfield (1950 to date), previously mentioned.  Prem Rawat (1957 to date), an especially poignant figure to me, is another significant person who has instilled inspiration within me and enlightened my introspective quest to discover “who, or why, am I?’ –  learning to meditate particularly significant. I do not feel the need to worship or hold these people in reverence, any more than my appreciation of a beautiful sunset would cause me to worship the sun. But I can and do experience respect, gratitude and appreciation towards something (sunrise kissing the morning mist, sparkling dew on the grass, a gesture of love and kindness) or some one, who has enlightened my consciousness, or acted as a catalyst to my growth and conscious actualisation, or simply yet very significantly filled me with pleasure and joy (an inspiration in itself).

Roger’s (alongside all those mentioned above) recognised and acknowledged the uniqueness of every individual and encouraged the notion that, although ‘earthed’ in the everyday things of life, we are all intrinsically spiritual beings reaching towards a higher state of consciousness (as observed by others too; Jung, Maslow, Moreno, Berne). But not in some vague mystical context, or some unobtainable religious theory or expectation, or some Deity just beyond our grasp and comprehension. Like James Redfield, Kahlil Gibran and Prem Rawat, Rogers perpetuated the simple touchable belief that we are all the keepers of our own enlightenment; that effectively our spiritual experience exists within each and everyone of us; we have just forgotten or become distracted and simply need the opportunity to refocus. The onus or locus of power resides within the individual. In this context Roger’s did not place himself as some sort of leader or figurehead, but as a fellow student and perpetual learner of this truth. He shared his experience and insights as a fellow traveller. This deist (as we all are deist for each other) assisted in further dispelling the mystery for me and thus, in ‘earthing’ spirituality, also exposed, revealed, my own obtainable potential.

Counselling, for me, is a way of reaching and sharing and journeying with other human beings. As Roger’s suggested, the philosophy of counselling skills is, in fact, a way of being, serving both a practical and spiritual purpose.   Unconditional positive regard, congruence and empathy are basic spiritual truths that encapsulate compassion, respect and love. I say this because of the uplifting and empowering feeling these conditions promote; being a proactive participant appears to synergistically perpetuate a positive state of being and awareness, for myself and for those I share an interaction with (as if, when my own light is turned on it assists in kindling others, and vice versa – I suppose this is what inspiration is).

Another understanding that has evolved  for me through practising counselling skills (and also through the practice of meditation) is that cognitive realisation and spiritual awareness are one thing, but applying these to everyday life is another. Practice, or pro-action, becomes the true test. Practice deepens and compounds and perpetuates wakeful awareness.  Essentially, the theory (in this instance, Roger’s) is comprehensible and uncomplicated.  However, embodying this understanding and awareness in daily life requires concerted concentration, focus, self-discipline, and absolute honesty: states which sometimes behave like a slippery piece of soap – the harder I try to grasp, the faster they slip out of my fingers.  The simple key, however, as I have come to realise, is that even awareness of intention acts as a gentle catalyst sufficient enough to instigate these conditions, like a gentle nudge (we don’t have to ‘break into a sweat’ or ‘beat ourselves up’ in trying ‘so hard’).  Equally, though, I also observe the entropy that Scott Peck spoke of in his book, ‘The Road Less Travelled’ (1997). I notice there also coexists within me a self-defeating tendency to work against this apparent upward (or perhaps rather, inward) surge and growth, in spite of my apparent good intentions.  But, yet again, it seems, that simply being aware of this is enough to initiate (or illuminate) conscious choice.  So, the road to self-awareness or enlightenment is paradoxically the simplest easiest yet hardest path I tread; sometimes incredibly painful, sometimes incredibly uplifting: bittersweet but not insurmountable.

Life is amazing.  And then it’s awful.  And then it’s amazing again.  And in between the amazing and awful it’s ordinary and mundane and routine.  Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful, and relax and exhale during the ordinary.  That’s just living heartbreaking, soul-healing, amazing, ordinary life.  And it’s breathtakingly beautiful.  L. R. Knost

I have also learned how much we need each other. Not in the sense of helpless dependency, but rather that we may benefit from the catalystic value and ‘growth enhancing’ attributes experienced in sharing, communicating and loving. The down side to this, however, is that we equally have the potential to destroy each other, to negate this growth. Ironically, our saving grace is that we have the freedom of choice, we may choose to be positive or negative; it is not beyond our control; this, I believe, is the intrinsic principle of Carl Roger’s theory.

The core conditions (empathy, congruence and positive regard) appear to present a key that may unlock and liberate a person’s potential positive self awareness. Reflection (as in, for example, the language and behaviour expressed during counselling), like a mirror, shows the true face.  When the light is turned on there is no shadow or darkness to obscure the picture (Rogers 1987); in this context, the core conditions appear to be like a light switch. Unfortunately, though, (and here is the entropy) it seems to me, the socio-political environment we presently live in perpetuates a culture of control underpinned by fear, greed and sense of isolation, rather than community, love and respect, that in turn potentially seeds and promotes negative attitudes and behaviours; the entropy is within and without.  Counselling (and it seems meditation also), by enlightening our self awareness, presents opportunity to arrest and/or reverse the negative tendencies of our learned or conditioned attitudes and behaviour, thus revealing our choice, our true nature, our inner core, the heart of our beingness; aiding us to ‘peel back the layers’, to expose this intrinsic element at our epicentre – covered up but never spoiled.  Rogers believed that, given the right conditions, we all aspire towards self-actualisation and have a greater tendency towards this and survival than to defeat and self-destruction (Rogers, 1997). It is this positive core intrinsic drive that may keep a person going, even in the direst of conditions and circumstances, fulfilling the adage that good prevails over evil, light outshines darkness, even if at times this seems impossible.

As well as the above, the practical things I have learned through engaging and practicing these core counselling skills is an increased awareness of my own strengths and weakness (those I am willing to acknowledge and address); awareness of my language (the words and phrases I use and the positive or negative impact they may have); how remaining in a positive state of consciousness requires self discipline (not always present); that in taking ownership of my words and actions I become aware that the onus is really upon me (transference is avoidance); that I have an equal right to be happy or sad, confident or insecure, right or wrong because all of these conditions are an important part of a ‘whole’ learning process that belong to me; that in judging others I judge myself (one finger points forward, three point back at me); that honesty sometimes requires risks to be taken (for which I don’t always have the courage).

I have also learned the value of working in groups (here comes the word ‘synergy’ again), because it teaches and reminds me to share, to listen to and respect others perceptions, values and opinions. Group work shows me that collectively we may experientially raise each other’s consciousness and intellectual awareness and insight through our mutual interaction (Redfield, 1995: Rogers, 1997). I am taught patience and self-discipline. Listening to others I realise I am not always alone in my feelings and experiences. Shared interaction also teaches me that my perceptions are not always right, neither are they always wrong.  In sharing insights and experiences we broaden each others ‘field of awareness, knowledge and understanding’. In this sense, the group may be synergistically empowering, both collectively and individually. However, this outcome can be both positive and negative.

Negative aspects of group work, for example, is empowerment may potentially be destructive if the group has undesirable intentions; personality conflicts may hinder positive interaction; there may be a tendency to begin to identify with the group and loose individual focus; not everyone is always present at the same time (physically or consciously), which seems to affect the dynamics; those who have stronger personalities may dominate and control the group. Yet these apparent ‘negatives’ can also be enlightening and revealing; the journey to self-awareness, it seems, has many paths and dynamics.

‘Ownership’ is another word that has underpinned an important lesson for me. I have become aware how often I ‘pass the buck’, how by projecting responsibility to another person, an outside (abstract) event or condition, I effectively relieve myself of any blame or responsibility or conversely, praise; a double sided coin with a negative and a positive implication. Sometimes, projecting attention from myself I am also denying my achievements and worthy qualities in the same way that I project blame and deny my weaknesses or failings. Therefore, ‘ownership’ has to be a holistic quality that permeates my behaviour and attitude totally if I am going to develop my potential to develop or learn anything. If I deny any aspect of myself, whether self worth or a negative behaviour or attitude, then I am not being honest or true, I am in a state of incongruence and this inevitably becomes self-defeating.

Another significant lesson for me has been about my own ‘baggage’; the emotional things I carry inside from my past experiences. Sometimes this baggage is obvious to me but sometimes it is insidious, and it is this hidden baggage that causes me the biggest problem, especially in terms of counselling or working therapeutically. I have learned that it is easy to superimpose my own expectation, experiences and values on to another person. Just because I have experienced a similar event in my life, for example, does not mean that it will hold the same significance for someone else, or that their perception or learning experience is necessarily like mine. More significantly in this context though, because this baggage is hidden it also has an unpredictable tendency to be unexpectedly triggered into the foreground when certain key words are used or similar personal experiences are recounted. I have no control over this response – although I may have some control in terms of how I outwardly reflect or express this. A negative aspect, apart from my own emotional state, is that it may interfere with or obscure my perception of and response to the other person (in a therapeutic context, my client), it may cloud my view so that I react inappropriately, or subjectively; therefore, I do not respond in an objective, balanced and healthy way. I can see this is why counsellors need counselling too; in fact, I do not believe it is possible to counsel, or work in any therapeutic context, without a similar safety net or support available to the counsellor (therapist, carer, teacher). By virtue of the highly emotional and sometimes disturbing experiences that may be dredged from the depths (in either party), if mishandled, the activity of counselling itself can become a psychologically dangerous or disturbing exercise. For this reason it seems necessary that counsellors (and all therapists) need to work as part of group practice and never alone, as much for their own psychological and emotional balance as that of their clients, where facilitation of mutual support, direction and monitoring can take place.

Which brings me back to the point: most things in life are a duality, a paradox. Counselling is both liberating and challenging; it can be a profoundly uplifting experience and equally a profoundly disturbing one (as I have personally experienced); the process requires skilful, careful, and compassionate management.

Giving birth is painful, but at the same time there is the rewarding joy of holding a newly born infant (naked, moist, warm next to your own skin). Whether engaging in a counselling interaction, in my daily life or a significant event, it would seem to me that I am (in consciousness or not) in a perpetual state of giving birth to myself, (a process that may be one and the same time painful, uncomfortable, and elating) in an endeavour to ‘awaken to’, to liberate my unimpeded beingness and to grow towards (within and without) my own self actualisation, to achieve and experience a state of total self expression, appreciation, awe and wonder – ‘in absolute unconditional love’. Even if this only happens briefly, leaving a taste, an inspiration, illuminating timeless moments, I am enriched.


See also, ‘Counselling Skills: An Inseparable Aspect of Therapeutic Relationships, published in the Aromatherapy Times (2002) vol. 1 no. 53 pg 28-3.

Reference and Bibliography

  • Clarkson, Petruska: (1999) Gestalt Counselling in Action: Sage Publications
  • Egan, Gerard: (1994) The Skilled Helper (5th ed): Brookes Cole
  • Gibran, Kahlil: (1995) Edited – Waterfield, Robin: The Voice of Kahlil Gibran: Penguin Arkana Books
  • Mearns, Dave; Thorne, Brian: (1999) Person Centred Counselling in Action (2nd ed): Sage Publications
  • Mehta, P. D.: (1998) Holistic Consciousness: Reflections of the Destiny of Humanity: Element Books
  • Peck, Scott M.: (1997) The Road Less Travelled: Rider Books
  • Rawat, Prem: (2005) Pursuing Peace Means Knowing Where to Begin:
  • Redfield, James: Adrienne, Carol: (1996) The Celestine Prophecy, An Experiential Guide: Bantam Books
  • Rogers, Carl: (1995) A Way of Being: Houghton Mifflin Company
  • Steiner, Rudolf: (1999) First Steps in Inner Development: Anthroposophic Press