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