Monday, December 23, 2013


Most of the Patients in my current psychotherapy practice are men. At this stage of the evolution of my professional life, 71 years old with four decades of experience as a psychologist,I have a strong desire to help men navigate the complexity of their emotional relationships with their partners and their children. I view it as a mentoring role within the therapeutic relationship. Most of my patients had fathers and other men in their lives who had limited skills for dealing with emotionally-laden situations.

In talking with my patients about this I find the iconic male image of "the toolbox" a very useful metaphor.For example, during a recent session with Hal, who at 38 is floundering in his efforts to connect emotionally with his wife and two daughters,I said "When your father reached into his emotional toolbox he found only two tools - advice-giving and the hammer of anger. Part of what I will try to do is to give you some additional tools." He smiled and nodded his head. This is a fairly typical exchange. We live in an era in which men are encouraged to connect more with their inner emotional landscape and to enter more into the realm of the heart in their relationships with their partners and their children. However, they have been raised by fathers, grandfathers and uncles from another era. So, while there is a cultural permission to define masculinity in a different way, they still have few models of what that actually means.

When discussing expanding their emotional skills I put my left hand over the edge of my chair, reach down to the floor and say, "Imagine yourself reaching into your toolbox and selecting the right tool that is needed for this situation." Oftentimes men will say that they feel helpless because they don't know what to do. My respond usually is "Often she doesn't need you to do anything. She needs you to be....Sometimes that means being an attentive listener who doesn't interrupt or give advice. Sometimes that means she needs you to be in your heart and not your problem-solving head - to be an open-hearted compassionate presence. Sometimes the tool you need is patience - to give your partner or child the gift of your time while something unfolds." We also talk about being a provider, which is certainly an archetypal male role. The use of that term resonates with my patients at very deep levels of consciousness. However, I'm talking about being a provider not only of their external needs, but also of their inner needs. That means asking the question, "What does my partner or child need from me at this moment to nurture their inner life. Do they need a warm soothing voice, encouragement, some affectionate touch, praise, celebration of an accomplishment ....?

As a way of reminding my patients to respond from their hearts to these emotional situations I recommend to them that they gently touch the breastplate at the center of their chests and do some meditational breathing. I suggest that they tap that spot for several minutes before they enter their home or apartment as a reminder to shift from the problem-solving mode that their work usually requires to the more open-hearted presence that their home life needs. I also encourage them to do that gentle tapping of their heart area during emotional situations at home so that they can respond from the realm of their emotional hearts.

This blog entry is based on the MEN chapter of my book "Working From the Heart:A Therapist's Guide to Heart-Centered Psychotherapy"

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


Not all of our patients reach levels of despair or profound discouragement wherein they feel a sense of hopelessness or some significant diminished of their capacity to be hopeful. More than a few clients,however, do experience that dark place at some point in their therapy or counseling.

Sometimes it's because nothing in any area of their life is going well and everyday life feels so overwhelming that they cannot see a away out. Sometimes they feel a sense of powerlessness to change any of the externals of their lives. Sometimes they feel that whatever changes need to occur are so daunting that they are beyond their own inner resources. Sometimes it's because they feel consciously or unconsciously that they are unworthy of a better life. Sometimes it's because they are over attached to certain desired outcomes or over identified with some self-concept or certain ways of being-in-the-world. Usually it is a toxic mixture of several of the above factors.

It is in these moments that our patients need us to be "carriers of hope". It is not necessary for us to offer them reasons to be hopeful,nor is it essential for our client to think of things to feel hopeful about. During these times of profound darkness any imperative to find reasons to be hopeful place too much pressure on our client or us. What we can offer though is companionship in the darkness - to be alone in the dark is more scary - and a persistent willingness to keep working with them on these issues until some light appears. What I usually say to my patients during these difficult times is,"I have experienced my own version of this place a couple of times in my life and I've been with other patients in this dark place. For now I will carry the hope until it reawakens in you."

Whenever I've said that most patients have voiced that they feel relieved and grateful. Occasionally there is some client for whom that message is no conscious source of solace. I simply accept that they are unable to take in my offer at this time and I continue the work placing no extra pressure on them to acknowledge that message.

Twice in my life I have experienced periods of sustained suicidal ideation. I have never acted on those thoughts. Because of my own toxic mixture of the feeling states that I described earlier I know what it feels like to feel that the only way out of the overwhelming darkness is death. Obviously I am grateful that I never acted on those feelings. I am also grateful that I have experienced those states. It is both an additional source of deep compassion for my patients who are suicidal and also helps me to be less fearful about being in that place with them. With most patients who are feeling suicidal I share that aspect of my personal story. It enables them to know that there is an additional source of my genuine empathy - as a human being who has suffered similar states in addition to being a professional who cares. I am also offering myself as a beacon of hope.They are usually grateful for that moment of sharing our humanity. Periodically I do not share my story because I sense for reasons that are idiosyncratic to that patient, that it would not be helpful.

Never in my training was it ever mentioned that one of our important roles was to be "carriers of hope". Increasingly I feel that it is an essential aspect of our work. I'm not sure why. Perhaps in these complicated times wherein the political, economic and environmental issues are placing so much conscious/unconscious pressure on our clients that the need for us to be a source of hope in their individual lives is greater.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Accessing Our Big Hearts

    Once our work day begins we are in the psychological field of whatever each patient brings to us that day. Sometimes what they bring feels enormous and overwhelming: profound sadness or despair, terror or unrelenting anxiety, tremendous rage, or, a huge void. When our patients experience these big feeling states, there is a palpable shift in the energy in the room. In the presence of these states it is understandable that our first response, often unconscious, is to constrict our emotional hearts as a way of protecting ourselves from being overwhelmed.

   On some days there is something occurring in our own lives that makes it very difficult for us to be compassionately present. We are feeling miserable because we have a heavy chest cold or did not sleep well. We're worried about how we are going to pay that huge doctor's bill or this month's rent. We had a big argument with our spouse or partner or adolescent daughter this morning.

   Under these circumstances we may wonder how are we going to get through this evening's work and be present to our patients. In these moments it is important to remember that we all have Big Hearts that are able to transcend the limitations of the small hearts of our ordinary consciousness. How we understand the source of this Big Heart will depend on our cosmology. Yet we all know about the existence of these aspects of our consciousness from personal experience. We all have these periodic moments when we transcend our ordinary love and feel a much larger love for our spouse/partner, for our child, for a dear friend, for a particular place, for a beloved animal, for ..... These are Big Heart moments.  From my perspective my Big Heart is an aspect of my Higher Self. Someone else might postulate that this larger love emanates from their personal Higher Power or Buddha Nature or Christ Consciousness or .....  

The important pragmatic question is how do we access his Big Heart during psychotherapy or counseling sessions? I think that it is very helpful to have some image of this larger heart that uniquely fits for us. Many years ago my wife, Jeanne, gave me a piece of California redwood that had been carved into the wizened face of a bearded old man. I keep this carving in my office in a corner behind my patient's chair as an iconic image of my old friend Wiseheart, my name for my personal Higher Self. I think of Wiseheart as the Big Heart aspect of my consciousness. he is also the container of the enlarged compassion that has developed through my life experiences and the conduit for other sources of deep compassion and wisdom that are available to me through the collective unconscious. I encourage my patients and supervisees to develop their own personal image of their Big Heart. Until that emerges I suggest that they imagine a larger emotional heart that is located near their physical heart.  

   About five or ten minutes before the beginning of my first session, I use a small wooden hammer to tap an antique Chinese bell that sits on the floor inside my office door. This tapping ritual is a symbolic reminder that my intention is to enter a psychological space that is different from the concerns of my everyday life. Then I look at the carving of Wiseheart, imagining that I am connecting to my Big Heart and then I do some meditational breathing. Then I open the door to welcome my first patient.

   During sessions whenever I begin to feel overwhelmed by the bigness of the feeling states that my patient is experiencing or I start to feel myself becoming emotionally distant I again look at the carving of Wiseheart and do the meditational breathing. At these moments I feel that with the in breath I am connecting to my Big Heart and with the out breath I am releasing the energetic vibrations of my patient's large feelings. Then they do not penetrate the field of my consciousness. I can continue to be a compassionate presence for that person and the next and the next. At the end of a morning/evening of work I do not feel depleted.

   I encourage you to adapt these notions about our Big Hearts to your individual cosmology and ways of working.

   These ideas are described more fully in the Small Heart, Big Heart chapter of my book Working From the Heart, A Therapist's Guide to Heart-Centered Psychotherapy    


Wednesday, May 29, 2013


   Each day as therapists and counselors we are in the psychological energy field of so much suffering and struggle. In one morning or evening of work some patients will be depressed,anxious,grieving, angst-ridden,doubtful,despairing or enraged. Or a combination of those feelings. Our office reverberates  with the energy of those feeling states,day after day,week after week, month after month for years.

   Each of our patients needs us to be a compassionate listener, a source of loving kindness, and a carrier of hope. How do we sustain that level of presence and not become exhausted, emotionally distant or numb? How can we be in the psychological energy field of that amount of suffering and then go home and be emotionally available to our spouses, partners and children? This is one of the greatest personal  challenges of doing this lifework.

   I call the process of replenishing the energy supplies of our emotional,physical and psychospiritual batteries recharging. I have developed ways of recharging myself both outside of and during sessions that I would like to pass on. Before I discuss these it is important that I ask you to consider this question: why are psychotherapists and counselors so good at taking care of others and not good at taking care of themselves? 

   It is important that each of us explore that question in depth in our individual psychotherapy. From my own personal experience, and of working with psychotherapists whom I've had as patients, the answers were found in exploring how the role that I played in my family contributed to my choosing this lifework. As a child being the emotional caretaker of my mother was a reliable source of love and special status with her. That led me to unconsciously take on the role of emotional caretaker of others as a primary source of approval and love from others and self-esteem from myself. In my own psychotherapy I discovered that my struggles in taking care of myself were connected to an unconscious fear that others would no longer love me if I took time away from them to take care of me. That fear made me anxious about and resistant to doing things for myself. I would encourage you to learn what are the psychological roots of your difficulty in taking care of yourself.

   I have found two primary pathways of taking care of ourselves outside of sessions. the first is to take regular solitary time- at least a few hours each week - away from everyone, to do something that is nourishing for you. For me that involves taking a contemplative walk in some local nature setting at least once a week. For other therapists and counselors that I know that solitary time is by riding a motorcycle, horseback riding,spending time in the garden or in an art studio. The essential aspects are that the captivity feels replenishing and that it occurs in some place where no one can access you. Because the nature of our personalities tends to be that when we are with other people we think of their needs before our own it is critical to have regular time when we take care of only ourselves. the second pathway is to regularly spend playful time with playmates. Playmates are people with whom we share a passion and who have no psychological need for us to take care of them. I have friends with whom I share my passions for jazz and college basketball. other therapists that I know are in community theatre. have a weekly poker game, play music or sing with others.

   It is also possible to recharge ourselves during sessions. Within the limitations of this brief blog I will describe effective ways of doing this that I have evolved. Whenever I am with a very fearful patient I spend a few moments looking at a Taoist painting behind the patient's chair. It depicts a man sitting in a small boat in a tranquil lake and to me it symbolizes serenity. It reminds me of solitary time that I've spent by a local pond. As I glance at the painting I take a few meditational breaths - imagining with the out breath that I am releasing any fearful energy from my patient that might have entered my field of consciousness. When I am with a patient who is deeply grieving I look at a wood carving behind the patients chair again with some meditational breathing imagine myself releasing any sadness from my patient that may have entered my field of consciousness. This redwood carving is of the head of a bearded old man - it is my image of Wiseheart, my Higher Self whose Big Heart is capable of much more compassion than my ordinary small heart. When I am feeling depleted or overwhelmed by what a patient is describing I look at a large poster in a corner of my office. It is of a giant redwood - to me a symbol of great strength and stamina. I recall what it felt like to walk underneath those giants and to walk among the big trees near my home. With the in breath I take in that feeling of strength and with the out breath I let go of feelings of depletion.

   Having done this kind of recharging for years I am pleased to report how effective it has been in helping me to sustain a sense of open-hearted compassionate presence for hour after hour and not feel the need to become distant in order to protect myself from the cumulative effect of the enormity of feelings that we are present to in this work. Hopefully this will help you to find something similar that will work for you.

   This entry is based on the Recharging chapter in Working From the Heart: A Therapist's Guide to Heart-Centered Psychotherapy   

Monday, April 8, 2013


   Whatever struggles or suffering that they are experiencing in their outer world, our patients need to feel that, once our office door closes, that they are in a place of temporary retreat from that world. Even though they may not be able to articulate that they need this, at some level of consciousness their wounded psyches are seeking that safe person, that place of refuge - a sanctuary.  

   So many of our patients come from unsafe family backgrounds where they were subjected to psychological or physical abuse. Or deprived of essential emotional nurturance. With these patients it is especially important that we move away from the model of the emotionally distant professional. Their wounded or neglected psyches are in hiding. They need to feel from us a welcoming warmth and a compassionate caring. Then we are offering them an invitation to come out from that self-protective hiding space. By our open-hearted warmth and acts of loving kindness we are saying,"This is a safe place no harm will come to you. You will be treated with respect and genuine caring."  

   For this reason it is also important to pay attention to the physical ambience of our office space. So much of what we communicate to our patients is transmitted non-verbally and at non-rational levels of consciousness. Some practitioners have offices that are cold and impersonal. The lighting is harsh, the furniture uncomfortable, the artwork is neutral and there are few personal objects reflecting the personality of the therapist or counsellor. The office may look professional - it may even be well decorated - but something is missing. It is important to ask ourselves: Does my office communicate to patients that they are entering a safe space in which they will be treated with warmth, kindness and dignity? Of course how we answer that question will be unique, fitted to our individual personalities and the limitations of the physical space.  

   There is another meaning of the word sanctuary that is applicable to our work. Derived from the Latin word sanctus - holy - a sanctuary is a place that has been dedicated to a holy or sacred purpose. How that connects to psychotherapy and counseling I discussed in an earlier blog wherein I encouraged us to consider a possible additional aspect of our work - being a soul friend. In this limited space I will not engage in an ontological discussion of "soul." Suffice to say what I am referring to is the "essential nature" of our patients. If you observe young children - in my case, grandchildren - you can witness certain unique qualities that are present from very early in their lives. For many of our patients their essential nature has not been treated well throughout their lives. By our offering ourselves as soul friend  we are saying that we will value, respect, nourish, celebrate and lovingly challenge their essential nature. That is a deep sacred pledge, a "holy" purpose. By consciously creating an atmosphere of compassionate caring we are saying, This is a safe, loving place in which your wounded, neglected soul can come out of hiding and become more whole.  

This blog entry is based on the Sanctuary chapter of my book, Working From the Heart: A Therapist's Guide to Heart-Centered Psychotherapy    

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Council

   At some point in the process of their psychotherapy each client will present some complex life dilemma, the resolution of which will result in some significant changes in their life. Sometimes people will initiate therapy because of this crisis. At other times the dilemma will occur as the process unfolds. During this time of great conflict our clients experience a lot of inner tension and confusion because they have very different. often opposing, feelings and thoughts about what to do.

   One of the first things I tell my clients is that this dilemma cannot be resolved at the level of consciousness that it currently exists. Rational or pragmatic approaches - like making lists of pros and cons - may be helpful, but they will be insufficient in coming to a resolution that answers the question What is in my best interests in this situation at this time of my life?

   From my four decades of experience as a psychotherapist in private practice the best resolutions come from the realm of the hearts of therapist and client and by engaging the Higher Self as a source on inner wisdom and deep compassion. I tell my clients that the persistent thoughts and feelings that they are experiencing are emanating from distinct parts of heir personality. These parts are in a state of dynamic tension. Because they cannot tolerate the amount of tension and uncertainty most people make a premature decision based on only one or two p[arts of their personality. What is needed is some way of helping all the distinct parts of the personality to work together for the best interests of the whole person. And some way of containing the dynamic tension until the best resolution emerges.

   I offer my clients the metaphorical tool of The Council as an alternative pathway to resolve the big dilemma. I ask my clients to imagine that the various parts of their personality have decided to have a meeting to discuss in depth this issue. I ask them to imagine a particular setting in which this gathering would occur and describe a number of possible places that others have used. Commonly people have decided to convene their Council in some nature setting such as the woods, ocean/lake, mountaintop or desert. For example, when I have a Council for myself I imagine that it meets in the woods around a campfire with each part of my personality sitting on a stump or fallen log. Others select to sit on beach chairs or blankets at the waters edge at the ocean or lake. Some people select a favorite indoor meeting place such as a den with comfortable chairs facing a fireplace or around a circular table at a business conference center or in a quiet room at a retreat center they love. Other times people select a setting that is unique to them. A high school basketball coach picked the locker room at his school and the different parts of his personality were players on the team.

   To help make the Council image more concrete I have my client talk about the conflict again. As she is talking I help her to find a label or name for that particular part of her personality that is voicing those thoughts and feelings. "So one member of your Council is the Mother part of you.. It's important for her to be a good mother who takes care of the needs of her children. Who else is art the Council?" After she talks some more, I might say "That's the Career Woman part of you who loves her work and the feelings of competence that it gives her. She feels guilty about the amount of time and energy she puts into her work. Who else is at the gathering?" After listening some more I say," That's the Fearful part of you that's afraid of the changes that this new job offer will bring to your family life. Fear is usually a dominant member of everyone's Council. Who else is present?" This process continues for a while until there are five or six distinct inner voices that have been acknowledged and named.

   Then I will say to my client "It's also important to leave one or two empty seats for the Mystery Guest We don't know who they are yet, but they will show up at some point in the Council. They are always an important part of the Council and are essential for a good resolution. By leaving the empty seats we are inviting them to be present and are honoring the importance of their contribution."

   The final member of the Council is the Wise Elder. His or her presence represents a higher level of consciousness - the Higher Self - which is a source of our personal inner wisdom and deep compassion for self and others. The Wise Elder quiets down with a tone of gentleness and compassionate warmth the judgmental and self-critical voices which often dominate our client's inner dialogue. This aspect of the personality consistently holds the large question, What is in the best interests of myself and others in resolving this situation? In the initial stages of the Council, I often play the role of the Wise Elder until my client is able to recognize and value that part of herself.   

   The Council convenes without the pressure of a time limit - usually several months - until a good resolution, that involves all the Council members, emerges. The Wise Elder's compassionate presence and the metaphorical image of a circular gathering(symbolizing wholeness) provides a container for all the powerful feelings that come during the Council. As this gathering continues over many sessions I explain to my clients that this is a technique that helps top get the turmoil that is inside of them "out there" in some archetypal vessel that makes the feelings more manageable. While the Council is ongoing we imagine that the office space is the setting in which it convenes. Between sessions I encourage clients to carry the Council in their consciousness. Some people keep a journal as a way of continuing the work between sessions.

   In the Council chapter of Working From the Heart there are two lengthy examples of how a Council unfolds. There is also a discussion of the danger for both therapist and client of a premature closure.

   This blog entry is based on The Council chapter of my book Working From the Heart: A Therapist's Guide to Heart-Centered Psychotherapy    

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Connecting With Our Higher Self

    Increasingly in my daily life,meditation and contemplative walks in nature I am trying to deepen my heart connection to my Higher Self. I no longer consider my higher Self as an abstraction. I now think of this aspect of my consciousness as an "old friend" that has been with me a long time - perhaps all my life - yet for most of my life I have not been consciously aware of his existence. Now as I deepen the sense of a personal ongoing connection I feel more his companionship - he's a source of inspiration, loving sustenance and inner peace.

   At least a dozen years ago in order to make our relationship more personal - less an abstract concept - I named this aspect of my consciousness. I called my Higher Self "Wiseheart." I think of Wiseheart as the source of my capacity for deep compassion and the carrier of my knowledge- conscious and unconscious, learned and unlearned - in the realm of the heart. I also think of him as the source of my Self-love. I imagine him as a bearded old man with a wizened face. In my office I have a wooden image of his face,carved from second growth redwood, that is tucked into a corner behind the chair my patients sit in.

   Five or ten minutes before I begin my morning/afternoon's work I look at this carved image of Wiseheart and say "Help me to be a source of compassion and heart wisdom for my patients today." Then I do some meditational breathing as a way of connecting more deeply to him and letting go of the thoughts and feelings of my ordinary ego consciousness. During sessions,whenever I sense that my small heart is constricting, because I'm feeling depleted or my patient is talking about some big pain or very complex situation, I again look at the carving of Wiseheart. At that moment I again try to connect to him, I breathe deeply and with my exhale breath let go of whatever may be causing me to distance myself. By doing this during every session - often several times - I am able to remain a compassionate presence for hours without becoming emotionally distant or tired.

   No one ever told me about the importance of connecting to my Higher Self. No one ever taught me any way of remaining a compassionate loving presence during sessions with my patients. At this time of my life, as an elder in the field of psychotherapy, I mentor my supervises and patients who are health professionals by talking with them about what I do and encouraging them to develop their own ways of personally connecting to their own Higher Self.

   I am acutely aware that within the broad spectrum of ways of being a psychotherapist or counselor there is also a wide range of perspectives about higher consciousness. When talking to my supervisees and patients I try to connect to each person's individual cosmology. For some I use the term Higher Self: for some,who have experience with the Recovery perspective, I use the phrase personal Higher Power; for others with a transpersonal perspective we find a term that fits for them; for those with a Christian perspective I use the term Christ Consciousness; for those with a Buddhist worldview i use the term Buddha Nature. From a pragmatic viewpoint - with an awareness that there are differences among these notions - I am trying to connect with whatever fits into the cosmology of that person.

   Richard calls his Higher Self "Father Dan." A former priest, who now has a private practice as a psychotherapist and pastoral counselor, Richard is tapping into his warm memories of his compassionate and insightful mentor whose real name was Father dan. At this time of his life Richard imagines Father Dan sitting in the living room of the cabin in the woods where he used to visit his mentor during retreats. At that time he was a priest in his late 20's and early 30's. Now Richard has internalized that memory of Father Dan as his image of his own Higher Self.

   Carl, a message therapist in his late thirties, has no visual image of his Higher Self. Instead he has developed this felt sense of a compassionate loving non-judgmental energetic presence. During our sessions Carl will periodically close his eyes and do some deep breathing when he wants to connect to his Higher Self. As he feels his breathing become less constricted, he also feels a releasing of muscular tension in his neck and shoulders. At these moments he can sense the presence of his Higher Self. During these times he feels more receptive to important insights and compassion towards himself and others. Carl also reports that he now does this kind of connecting to his Higher Self before and during his work with his clients.

   This topic is discussed in more depth in the Recharging and Small Heart, Big Heart chapters of Working From the Heart.