Counselling: A Journey in Experiential Learning

Heather Godfrey P.G.C.E., B.Sc. (Joint Hon), F.I.F.A

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 (Please also see Aromantique’s ‘Essential Oil Companion for Mindfulness’ and ‘Essential Oil Companion for Stress Reduction’)

 

The following represents a synopsis of my experiential journey during a three year study of Counselling.  As a therapist I have come to value these experiences and believe that the study of counselling skills and practice serves to enrich my process and development in terms of the student-client-therapist relationships I engage in.

 Having completed this course of formal study (although the process of inner discovery appears perpetual – I’m not sure where it begins or if it ever ends), I can see that there were various learning experiences encapsulated within this journey of orchestrated study and exploration: 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 has been ‘synergy’ and recently one has been ‘catalyst’, ‘scenario’ is 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, a message for me within it 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 seems 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.  Sometimes this ‘message’, ‘awareness’ and/or inspiration emanates from a special person (whether consciously or unconsciously, sometimes it is simply encapsulated in a persons ‘beingness’, their attitude or behaviour); as described by James Redfield is his book, ‘The Celestine Prophecy’ (1995).

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Carl Rogers (1902-1987) was introduced to me through my study of counselling and became one of those who touched and inspired my spirit, my ‘being’ within. Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931) is another. Prem Rawat (1957 to date), an especially significant figure to me, is another notable person who has instilled inspiration within me and enlightened my introspective quest to discover “Who, or why, am I?’ – through the knowledge and apparent wisdom of his writings, discourse and most especially, lessons in meditation.  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, 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 recognised and acknowledged the uniqueness of every human 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 others also recognised and ‘understood’; Jung, Maslow, Moreno, Berne].  But not in some vague mystical context, or some unobtainable religious theory or expectation, or some deity just outside of 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 ourselves, we have just forgotten or become distracted and simply need the opportunity to refocus.  The onus or locus of power resides within the individual.

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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 assisted in further dispelling the mystery for me and, in ‘earthing’ spirituality, also exposed 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 underpinning philosophy of counselling skills represents  ‘a way of being’, serving both a practical and spiritual purpose.   Unconditional Positive Regard, Congruence and empathy seem to be basic spiritual truths that encapsulate respect and love.  I say this because of the uplifting and empowering feeling these conditions promote; being a proactive participant seems to synergistically perpetuate a positive state of being and awareness, for myself and for those who I share an interaction with (as if, when my own light is turned on it assists in igniting others and vice versa – I suppose this is what inspiration is).

Another apparent awareness I have come to understand through practising counselling skills (and also through meditation) is that cognitive realisation and spiritual awareness are one thing but ‘holding’ this realisation and awareness and then putting these into practice, integrating this into ‘everyday’ life with it’s ups and downs, challenges and joys, is another.  Integrated practice, or pro-action, becomes the true test.  Essentially, the theory (in this instance, Roger’s) is comprehensible and uncomplicated.  Paradoxically, practice requires concerted concentration, self-discipline and absolute honesty: states which sometimes behave like a slippery piece of soap – the harder I try to grasp them, the faster they slip out of my fingers.  I have discovered (through practice) the entropy that Scott Peck spoke of in his book, ‘The Road Less Travelled’ (1997). I see that there also coexists within me a self-defeating tendency to work against this apparent upward (or perhaps, inward) surge and growth in spite of my apparent good intentions.  So, in fact, this simple road to self-awareness or enlightenment is paradoxically the hardest path I tread.  Sometimes incredibly painful, sometimes incredibly uplifting: bittersweet.

I have also learned how much we need each other.  Not in the sense of helpless dependency, but rather that we may learn and benefit from the catalystic value and ‘growth enhancing’ attributes experienced in sharing, communicating and loving.  The down side to this, though, 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 think is the intrinsic principle of Carl Roger’s theory.   The core conditions represent a key that unlocks and liberates a person’s potential.  Reflection, like a mirror, shows the real 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 the light switch. Unfortunately, it seems to me, the socio-political environment we presently live in perpetuates a culture of control underpinned by fear and greed, rather than love and respect, which in turn promotes negative attitudes and behaviours.  Counselling (and it seems meditation also) presents an opportunity that may aid in arresting and/or reversing the negative tendencies of our learned or conditioned attitudes and behaviour by bringing these into awareness so we may distinguish between  what we construct (to shield ourselves with) and who we really are (allowing us to consciously ‘peel back the layers’); thus revealing, liberating, our inner core, the heart of our ‘beingness’.   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 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.

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As well as the above, the practical things I have learned through engaging and practicing these 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 and to listen to and respect others values and opinion.  Group work has shown me that collectively we may experientially raise each other’s consciousness and intellectual awareness through our interaction (Redfield, 1995: Rogers, 1997).  I am taught patience and self-discipline. Listening to others makes me realise that I am not always alone in my feelings and experiences.  It 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 may yield negative as well as positive results and outcomes.  The negative aspects of group work, for example, are that this empowerment has the potential to be equally destructive, as much as it may be positively developmental, if the group fosters undesirable intentions.  Personality conflicts may hinder the process; 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 when reflected upon; the journey to self-awareness, it seems, has many reflections and insights,  paths and dynamics.

IMG_0671‘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 on to another person, an outside (abstract) event or condition, I effectively relieve myself of any blame or conversely, praise; a double sided coin with a negative and a positive implication.  Sometimes, in projecting attention from my self 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 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, inevitably, this 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.  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, it 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 feelings are invoked,  or similar personal experiences are recounted. I have no control over this response – although I may have some control of how I outwardly reflect or express this.  A negative aspect, apart from my own emotional state, is that it may interfere with my perception and response to the other person (or in a therapeutic context, my client), it may cloud my view so that I react inappropriately, subjectively; 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 with out a similar safety net or support available to the counsellor.  By virtue of the highly emotional and sometimes disturbing experiences that may be dredged from the depths (in either party), the activity of counselling itself can become a psychologically dangerous or disturbing exercise if it is mishandled.  For this reason it seems to me that counsellors (and all therapists) need to work as part of group practice and never alone, as much for their own psychological/emotional balance as their clients, where mutual support, direction, reflection, deliberation and monitoring can take place.

IMG_0468 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).  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, in an endeavour to ‘awaken to’, to liberate my consciousness of ‘being’ and to grow towards (within and without) my own self actualisation, where I may 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.

Previously published in the Aromatherapy Times: Summer 2005: vol. 1 no. 65: p 10-12

See also, ‘Counselling Skills: An Inseparable Aspect of Therapeutic Relationships, previously published 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: maharaji.net
  • 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

 

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Heather Godfrey