By Elizabeth Dickson, LCSW
“Meaning must be constantly received, like the light to which
we must open our eyes here and now, if we want to see.”
Brother David Steindl-Rast
from “Word, Silence, and Understanding”
Parallels between Eugene Gendlin and Brother David Steindl-Rast
Although they come from very different backgrounds, I have noticed some striking similarities between Eugene Gendlin’s philosophy and the writings of Brother David Steindl-Rast. Gendlin is not considered a spiritual writer, and Brother David is a Benedictine monk and is not a psychotherapist. But what they are focusing on and the way they think lead them to come to similar conclusions, although they use different language. In a sense, both are phenomenological philosophers in that both are closely documenting a person’s inner process of experiencing. And both could be called spiritual in that they are asking the big questions, such as what creates aliveness and how it is that we find meaning in our lives.
The parallels between the two are probably possible because of Brother David’s basic orientation. His definition of spirituality is based on the notion of mystery; Brother David believes that Mystery (he uses a capital “M”) is not a problem to be resolved but rather is something to be embraced. This is the territory of the infinite and what he calls the “More.” In “Views of the Cosmos,” he tells us that our most basic religious experience is the encounter with Mystery and emphasizes that we do not want a “closed worldview,” but rather an “open worldview” that acknowledges and incorporates Mystery.
Brother David and Felt Meaning
One reason that Brother David’s writings are particularly relevant to psychotherapy is that he is interested in the human quest for meaning, but not just in the narrow sense of looking for an explanation of where we came from or for the answers to the mysteries of the universe. Rather, he is focused on how we find meaning on an ongoing basis in our lives. He explains that finding meaning is a process, not something that, once found, one can hold onto and claim to possess; we cannot expect to keep meaning once we find it.
As Brother David tells us: “Meaning must be constantly received, like the light to which we must open our eyes here and now, if we want to see.” Because experiential psychotherapy is all about creating moments of felt meaning and forward movement, it may not be surprising that Brother David’s writings about finding meaning are similar in many ways to Gendlin’s. As in Gendlin’s philosophy, we always come back to the “now” and the fresh possibilities for felt meaning inherent in each moment.
And like Gendlin, Brother David emphasizes that the experience of finding meaning is not something that we can will to happen. Unlike purpose, finding meaning is not subject to our control. This kind of meaning is more about letting go or allowing than it is about willing. As Gendlin might say, felt meaning emerges; it has a life of its own.
The Quest for Meaning as “The Adventure Par Excellence”
“As long as I am in control, not much can happen to me. As soon as I allow
reality to touch me, I am in for adventure. The quest for meaning is the
adventure par excellence, and happiness lies in the thrill of this adventure.”
Brother David Steindl-Rast
from “Word, Silence, and Understanding”
When a client experiences felt meaning and forward movement in psychotherapy, should we consider this a spiritual process? Most of us would probably not think of this as spiritual, yet Brother David’s language adds a spiritual dimension in that he highlights the uplifting elements of the human quest for meaning—something that we might be tempted to take for granted. For Brother David, there is no doubt that meaning is connected to spirituality. He tells us in “Word, Silence, and Understanding” that “happiness and meaningful life are inseparable” and that spirituality is “no more and no less than meaningful living, religion realized in daily life.”
Brother David reminds us how exciting the quest for meaning is, that it can be thrilling to take the risk of really allowing reality to touch us. And of course psychotherapy is an ideal structure for clients to learn to take that risk and to participate in the experience of felt meaning. We encourage clients to relinquish some of their normal control and undertake this adventure. This aspect of psychotherapy is the source of much of its power and a primary reason that clients are willing to come back week after week. And at the same time, the need to let go of some of their control is also the reason why many people who might benefit from and enjoy psychotherapy manage to avoid ever embarking on the adventure.
Hearing the client’s story in psychotherapy is not just about the content that is revealed or what we learn as a result, although this is vitally important. It is also about participating in the process of finding meaning, and the happiness and satisfaction that comes from that process. When we invite clients to open up and tell their story, we tend to think of the benefits in a traditional way—that the client will get to know themselves better and that doing this in the presence of an accepting therapist will help them overcome any negative self-concept. And also that, with the help of the therapist, clients will become aware of and learn to correct counterproductive patterns that have been holding them back. But to this list we should add that the process of finding meaning on an ongoing basis in psychotherapy is healing and fulfilling in and of itself and can establish a precedent for the kind of adventure that Brother David is referring to.
The Components of Felt Meaning
My first question when I read Brother David’s thoughts on meaning was whether he was really referring to the same type of felt meaning that clients experience in psychotherapy. Is meaning by Brother David’s definition the same as what Gendlin describes, where the client taps into an “underneath feeling self,” finds the right words or image, and experiences a shift or a sense of forward movement? To my surprise, I discovered that the way Brother David breaks down the components of felt meaning is remarkably similar to Gendlin’s description.
Brother David believes that what makes life meaningful differs from person to person, but when something becomes meaningful it always includes three aspects: silence (that deep and mysterious place from which word emerges), word (where word can be defined broadly to include that which carries meaning), and understanding. He explains that if we can allow ourselves to sink deeply into the silence, it can express itself in words, and then we have understanding. This sounds remarkably like Gendlin, where silence represents the implicit realm, “word” represents the words or images that express the felt sense, and understanding represents the felt shift and forward movement.
Felt Meaning and the Heart
I find some of Brother David’s language particularly beautiful, and, as a result, it is easy for me to relate to as I go about my work as a therapist. For Brother David, meaning is something that nourishes us. In “The God Problem,” he describes meaning as “some encounter or activity in which your heart finds rest–for a while at least.” I love that he brings in the concept of the heart when he talks about meaning. When our bodies respond in those “ah-ha” moments, it makes sense that our hearts are also involved; they go from a place of restlessness to finding rest. This is Brother David’s way of describing that sense of release or relief characteristic of meaningful moments.
I also appreciate that both Gendlin and Brother David are fascinated with this mysterious place of silence that we all have within us and the fact that it contains more than can ever be expressed. Gendlin calls it the “implicit” realm and uses the term “implicit intricacy” to convey this infinitely complex quality. These words bring to mind the infinite fullness at the depths of our being and our longing to bring this into the world. The fact that the silent place includes the heart makes sense, since so much of the fullness feels like love.
Ultimately love and finding meaning belong together. This is an important concept for therapists. Being reminded of the fullness of our place of silence and the possibilities for the “more” within each of us can help us during those difficult or not so meaningful times in therapy. Therapists can remember that this mysterious place of silence is always there in its potential fullness, and if we remain patient we may be surprised by what emerges.
Of course not every conversation in our lives needs to feel meaningful. Nothing is wrong with a certain amount of superficial conversation, even in psychotherapy. It would be exhausting and annoying to feel that we must always be accessing our felt sense and speaking from our deepest place of silence. Yet clearly the challenge in psychotherapy is to leave enough room amidst the surface type of conversation to find the more meaningful moments.
To understand how felt meaning actually plays out in the psychotherapy process, it is important to emphasize that finding meaning is something that both therapist and client experience together. We as therapists must be in contact with our own implicit realm (or place of silence); we can’t just help the client to connect to their place of silence while we remain detached. And we must also be willing to have the client witness our process to some degree. We are not just observing the client’s process of finding meaning; they are observing our process as well.
We might choose to speak directly to them from our place of silence, or, as often happens, the client simply experiences a connection with our place of silence without our needing to use words. I am not suggesting here that we as therapists should give up our boundaries and become overly self-disclosing or reckless, but rather that we must maintain our disciplined roles while at the same time skillfully accessing our own felt sensing, whether we are listening, responding or being more creative or spontaneous.
Examples of Felt Meaning in Psychotherapy
What follows are two simple examples from psychotherapy that illustrate this process of finding meaning. First, I will cite a case where the words of my client served to connect us to the silent place of each other. This was my first session with a young male client who was coming to therapy for the first time and acknowledging how much pain he had been in for much of his life. He conveyed a combination of sadness, anger, frustration and fear. Toward the end of the session he grew quiet for a moment and then said with some emotion, “I am an ugly person.” It was clear to me in that moment that there was something of great value in his making this statement. I felt touched, and in the pause that followed I experienced a feeling of connection–and I knew he could tell that I was moved.
It is still not totally clear to me all that was conveyed by his sentence, but I felt that he did not need me to reassure him that he was not an ugly person. (I later found out that his parents had been reassuring him all his life about what a sweet, attractive and good person he is.) In that moment he needed to say this unsayable thing to me and have me receive it at a deep level as the gift that it was. Without my putting it into words, in that moment we were both able to connect with the deep, silent part of the other.
The second example illustrates an instance where I spoke from my own place of silence to help facilitate a meaningful dialogue. A client is speaking of an unpleasant dream about a former friend with whom she is now estranged, and as I look at her face I sense that something is troubling her as she speaks. I use my felt sense and without giving it much thought, I share with her that I have had recurring dreams as well about a friend who I am estranged from. (The reason I chose to go in this direction was that I sensed that her concern was coming from a negative judgment about herself, that being estranged from this friend suggested some defect in herself.) I then told my client, “Yes, dreams like that can have a haunting quality.” I emphasized the word “haunting,” which to me captured so much of the rawness and complexity of what was troubling about my own experience with a failed friendship. To my delight, she brightened up and responded, “Yes, it does have a haunting feeling!”
This is an example where just one word served to connect the two of us in our deep places of silence and provided a special kind of forward movement. I believe that my client was reassured that she was not alone or abnormal, and the word “haunting” convinced her that I indeed had experienced something very similar to what she was going through– this word conveyed in a fresh, new way some of the disturbing quality of both of our experiences. In the course of our exchange we each felt deeply understood and appreciated.