Implications for Therapists: Felt Meaning as a Source of Direction and Inspiration

By Elizabeth Dickson, LCSW



The Evocative Language of Felt Meaning


Eugene Gendlin, Lynn Preston and Brother David offer something of great value to psychotherapists. They are putting into words processes that are so central to what actually happens in psychotherapy and yet have not previously been made explicit. (At least, these concepts have not been explicated before in a form that is accessible to most psychotherapists.)  All are poets in the sense that their words can inspire us and remind us of that “miracle” that happens when we experience felt meaning and forward movement in psychotherapy.


For me, hearing their words strengthens my own felt sensing ability in the same way that regular exercise strengthens our muscles or going to church or to spiritual retreats can open us up to awe and the possibilities that each moment holds. In our role as “evocateurs” we need the exposure to the evocative language to help us embody the kind of “aliveness” that Brother David might call spiritual. The right words can touch us in our place of deep silence and can bring us to understanding, which we might recognize as a felt shift or a place where our hearts find rest.



Help With Orientation and Navigation


Their words and concepts also offer a valuable perspective from which to view our work as therapists—an occupation in which it is easy to sometimes feel lost, even after many years of study and experience. For me, what sticks in my mind most are certain phrases that help to ground me and remind me of my priorities. I like to remember that my primary role is to “facilitate emergence” and that I can navigate using my own felt sense to help uncover the “more” of what wants to be said and to lift out and celebrate “moments of meaning.”


To appreciate that the heart responds when something becomes meaningful—that is a radical concept, though somewhat obvious when you think about it. The heart is not just reserved for the strictly interpersonal dimension of the psychotherapy relationship, even though we tend to associate the heart more with the psychotherapy relationship and the mind more with the process of understanding and finding meaning. We also very much use our hearts to sense where the “more” lies and to find meaning for the client and ourselves in the process. We can navigate for meaning from the heart, since meaning is that place “where our hearts find rest.”



The Therapist’s Paradox


The presence of paradox may be one way to recognize when we are in the realm of the “spiritual,” the awe-inspiring, when we are experiencing life in its full complexity. As therapists, we come face to face with paradox in many different forms. Just the basic premise that we are helping people to grow and change by accepting and embracing where they are right now is paradoxical.


One aspect of our role that is not often discussed is the paradoxical position that we are placed in of needing to be purposeful and receptive at the same time.  Therapists must hold the tension between these two seemingly contradictory states. I was heartened to discover that both Gendlin and Brother David consider this tension to be legitimate. In fact, Brother David points out that making a commitment to work with this paradox is actually the definition of the “monastic attitude.” Just like a monk who learns to remain fully present while doing everyday chores such as washing dishes, we as therapists can practice staying fully present with our clients even as we are purposefully guiding the psychotherapy process.


We need not feel wrong or guilty about using cognitive therapy or other more proactive approaches in our practices. Quite the opposite: our willingness to rise to the challenge and commit to both purpose and openness to meaning is a source of strength and something that can benefit our clients. We can proudly embrace both the purposeful and the receptive aspects of our work.



Returning to Awe


“We discover Mystery at the center of our own heart and sense the staggering

possibility that our own little life may become ultimately meaningful as a

celebration of that Mystery in which it is rooted.”


Brother David Steindl-Rast from “Views of the Cosmos”


As noted earlier, because mystery pervades all of life, awe becomes a rational response to any aspect of life that we choose to examine, depending upon our ability to be open to it. Yet we may be more likely to feel awe when we observe a colorful sunset, or a hummingbird or a rose than when we contemplate “the Mystery at the center of our own heart,” as Brother David describes it. Maybe because the mystery within us is not something that we can see, we are less likely to experience it as awesome or beautiful.


Brother David’s quote helps us to recognize this beauty—“the staggering possibility that our own little life may become ultimately meaningful as a celebration of that Mystery in which it is rooted.” What a delightful way to celebrate who we are, not in an ego centric way, but as a part of that larger mystery in which we are “rooted.” As Heschel says, “Awe is an intuition for the dignity of all things, a realization that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something supreme.” Certainly our “own little life” deserves to be included too, as standing, however remotely, for something supreme.



Is Psychotherapy a Spiritual Practice?


I have often felt that as therapists we are engaging in a kind of spiritual practice. Part of it, I believe, is that we are assuming the same attitudes that Jon Kabat-Zinn and Pema Chodron outline as the essential features of a mindfulness approach: together with our clients we are examining the present moment with precision in a spirit of kindness and openness to all that is possible. And in doing so we create a sacred space for our clients that is not so much a reflection of our individual personalities but more a reflection of the special role that we have taken on.


But much of what feels spiritual about psychotherapy is about our individual personalities and who we are as people. As therapists, we are in an occupation that allows us to regularly witness and experience the miracle of felt meaning and the feelings of connection to our clients (and to ourselves) that come with sharing these moments. We learn over time that the experience of felt meaning is not just passive. Brother David tells us that there is a “gesture” involved. As therapists we make this gesture when we actively recognize, evoke and celebrate moments of meaning.


Brother David describes “the quest for meaning” as “the adventure par excellence”–that willingness to give up control enough to allow reality to touch us. Other than extreme sports, where we take risks and give up some of our control in a physical way, it is difficult to imagine any endeavor in life that is more actively committed to this type of adventure than psychotherapy. The whole purpose of experiential psychotherapy is for the client to feel touched in a way that leads to healing and development. Ideally the quest for meaning that we undertake in psychotherapy provides a precedent for a lifetime of adventure, long after the actual psychotherapy is over and the client and therapist have parted ways.