Therapy Without a Therapist: Nonduality, Healing and the Search for Wholeness

If, as traditional and contemporary nondual teachings suggest, the separate self is merely an ‘illusion’ of thought and perception, and we are in essence the wide open space in which life unfolds, a space which is inseparable from that very unfolding, then what place does ‘therapy’ have in our lives? Can an illusory self really heal another illusory self? Can an open space be healed by ‘another’ open space? Who, exactly, is going to do this healing? And who, exactly, is going to be healed?

Therapy without a Therapist by Jeff Foster

 

About Jeff Foster

Jeff Foster graduated in Astrophysics from Cambridge University in 2001. Several years after graduation, following a period of severe depression and illness, he became addicted to the idea of ‘spiritual enlightenment’, and embarked on an intensive spiritual search which lasted for several years. The spiritual search came crashing down with the clear recognition of the nondual nature of everything. In the clarity of this seeing, life became what it always was: open, loving, spontaneous, and fully alive. Jeff presently holds meetings and retreats in the UK, Europe, and around the world, clearly and directly pointing to the frustrations surrounding our seeking activities, to the nature of the mind, and to the clarity at the heart of everything.

 

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17 Responses to Therapy Without a Therapist: Nonduality, Healing and the Search for Wholeness

  1. Din says:

    when i believe myself to be a separate individual, i see a separate world and separate individuals in it, this happens through the mechanism of projection

    but if i see through this and realize there’s really “nobody home” that the idea of a separate self is just an idea, then i have rooted out the idea that there is a separate self

    but what now

    do i go around believing that there are no separate selves?

    isn’t that just another belief

    to hold any position whatsoever with regard to any of this, seems to me be back in the game of belief and projection again

    the idea here, it seems to me, is not to know anything (whatsoever) but to simply “be”

    any “knowing”, any holding any position whatsoever, is a movement back into the mind that knows, that can make sense of this reality

    • jamesbarnes52 says:

      This the basic position of Nagarjuna and Madhyamika Buddhism. If you are not aware of Nagarjuna i would recommend reading him. The best books/translations i have found by Garfield (particularly ‘the fundamental wisdom of the middle way).

      Nagarjuna’s position is very very different to the Vedantic position, and as you have inadvertantly displayed, their conflation is problematic.

      James

  2. Kelley White says:

    I read Dr.Wayne Dwyer’s book The Shift in June and experienced a profound paradigm shift. I have maintained a positive outlook through the past several months despite being homeless, unemployed, and alone. Today, my life circumstances caught up with me as I have struggled to do so much to look for work, avail myself of resources, only to see door after door slam shut in my face. I could no longer say I know the Universe has something good for me. I lost my now….I came to facebook and someone posted a link to your page. Seeking and curious I happened to read this article first. When I came to the place in the article where you spoke of the woman whom had never been on her own…I have been that woman. I want someone to swoop in and fix it for me or tell me at least that all will be well. So many say you get what you attract, what you believe will happen, I know that so much bad has happened that I see that I really don’t believe anything good will happen. My faith in myself and humanity is shattered. No one can tell me what will happen, what will beome of me, yet everyone tries. To have someone just sit with me in the pain and not will it away, or talk it to death would be a beautiful experience. I don’t know what will become of me but I know that now, that is alright. I can let it unfold. It is okay to be afraid. It is okay to be sad. I don’t have to dwell there. Thank you for sharing this…it once again proved the synchronisity that has prevailed so much of late.

    • Jasper Self says:

      Hello Kelley,

      Yes, you do ‘receive what you believe’, but only when you are not attached to that receiving that belief. It is a hard irony to get your head around, but I’d invite you to try and let go of a sense of a doer who wants something done and instead, hard as it may be, see life as a gift, in which there is nothing to be done. That idea (that you need things, etc) comes from being conditioned into believing it. As Meister Eckhardt said, ‘the sould grows by subtraction’.

      Hope this helps,

      Jasper

  3. James Barnes says:

    A very provocative essay. Thanks for that Jeff.

    I would have to disagree with you pretty foundationally, however. Whilst I’m sure that the position you’re advancing can be useful to bring to the therapeutic dynamic in certain situations (or to some degree in all situations), insofar as you are suggesting that this should be the general stance, and that this is what the Advaita teaching is pointing to, i think you are mistaken.

    It is an all too common misunderstanding that Advaita Vedanta negates the empirical world of name and form; the relative, conventional, or whatever else. Your argument is predicated on this assumption. Just because the atma or Brahman is all that is and exhausts what is – that, in other words, everybody is always already whole and complete – it is mistaken and problematic to treat the person and their ego’s as non-existent and irrelevant.

    You may call it paradoxical, and from a limited perspective it is, but IT IS the person (the jiva) who is the one that has to be able to recognize that they are the atma, and that recognition is dependent on the body-mind of that jiva. For all practical purposes – and what we are talking about here is practice – the jiva is a jiva until he is no more.

    Consequently, the psychological and physical situation of the jiva is crucial with regards to its capacity to recognize that they are infact the atma. As such, it is most certainly necessary to integrate a disintegrated ego, and to quiesce a dysfunctional body, in order that the conditions in and through which it is even possible that that jiva can have that recognition are manifest. This is why even in the most cognitive of Vedanta gurukulums, there will still be an emphasis on meditation, yoga, devotional practice, and following dharma. More appropriately in the west, however, with our Cartesian/Freudian heritage, there is therapy inclined on integrating the ego. But both have the same goal and are in many ways overlap. One might say ‘one has to take care of and relax into the dual before one can recognize the non-dual’ – cue therapy.

    These are, of course, dualistic practices, but it is simply a lack of appreciation of the subtlety of the Advaita Vedanta position to think them unimportant. They are in fact crucial.

    I would appreciate any comments you might have on this.

    Warmly,

    James

    • Miranda says:

      Hi Jeff, the conference looks rellay interesting. I watched some of the videos of past speakers. You’ll have some rellay interesting and smart company. Congratulations!Of course Heidegger is all about background familiarity and foreground practices. Could be interesting to try to bring him into the discussion. The Heideggerian challenge to non-duality is that it doesn’t seem possible, given the assumption that our consciousness develops out of the background of what Heidegger calls familiarity , to respond to the world without some set of familiar practices that are generated from that background. Even the term consciousness betrays a way of interacting with the world which we have become familiar with. The response to this challenge would be to show somehow that it is possible to act from a condition of not-knowing or zero that is somehow so empty of structure that it doesn’t impose the duality of self and world.

  4. John Rowan says:

    Critique of Jeff Foster’s “Therapy without a therapist: Nonduality, healing and the search for wholeness”
    This really won’t do, you know. Foster first of all makes a crass distinction between therapy as healing (an instrumental view of therapy) and therapy as non-doing (a nondual view of therapy). There are two basic mistakes here. One is to omit the authentic view of therapy, where the emphasis is on meeting the client, not on treating the client; and the other is to assume that you can actually operate as a therapist from a nondual position. It is as if Foster had one cure for all ills, and refused to consider that it might not suit everyone. As someone once said, if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. As I have remarked before, most attempts at nondual therapy actually consist in doing ordinary therapy and talking about the nondual.
    But there is an even deeper mistake, which is to ignore the rather obvious fact that you cannot deal with Shadow material from a spiritual standpoint – and it seem clear to me that the nondual is a spiritual standpoint. The basic argument for this is of course spelt out in the standard Chapter 6 of Wilber’s Integral Spirituality. “Meditative and contemplative endeavours simply do not get at the original problem, which is that there is a fundamental ownership-boundary problem. Getting rid of the boundary, as meditation might, simply denies and suspends the problem on the plane that it is real. Painful experience has demonstrated time and again that meditation simply will not get at the original shadow, and can, in fact, often exacerbate it.” (p.126) I would say that working with the nondual is exactly the same in this respect, and for the same reason. If we look at the excellent discussion of the nondual in Forman (2010) we find the same point being made more pointedly. “This implies that the ego will continue to exist and will contain whatever wounds, neurosis, and that which has not yet been healed or overcome in development. Put in the language that we have used in this text, realization changes identity, but it does not automatically translate into full maturity or mental health.” (p.162)
    The trouble with Foster, as with so many of those who deal in the nondual, is that they do not pay sufficient attention to the idea of levels of consciousness. They rush from the mental ego to the nondual without considering any of the important territory between, and this means that some of the ramifications of the Shadow do not get considered or recognised at all. Luckily there are other voices now, doing more justice to the whole therapy spectrum, such as for example Ingersoll & Zeitler (2010). Although they do not mention the nondual, they lay all the necessary groundwork for such an endeavour, and make points which have to be considered by anyone wanting to do justice to the farther reaches of our experience in therapy.
    My own therapy approach is to aim at transformation, not healing. Healing merely restores what was before, like a cut healing up. But human beings deserve more than just putting back as before – they are entitled to becoming who they are. And that is a major event. We are agreed on that, I hope.
    John Rowan 2011
    REFERENCES
    Forman, M D (2010) A guide to integral psychotherapy Albany: SUNY Press
    Ingersoll, R E & Zeitler, D M (2010) Integral psychotherapy Albany: SUNY Press
    Wilber, K (2006) Integral spirituality Boston: Integral Books

  5. Jeff Foster says:

    Dear James and John,
    Thankyou for your fascinating comments.
    I would like to clarify a few points.

    Firstly, I have no ‘non dual’ stance. I would have no idea what that means. I am simply advocating fearlessly meeting the client exactly where they are. If I were to come from a ‘non dual stance’ – or any fixed, inflexible stance in fact – I would miss the one in front of me in my urge to ‘be a therapist’, to hold up that identity. I feel it is only in that authentic meeting that true healing, or therapy, and yes, even transformation, can really begin. And that meeting means total humility on the part of the therapist. A willingness to die.

    John, I am surprised – you seem to have misread the essay totally. I am actually advocating this authentic therapy – totally meeting the client exactly where they are. No holds barred. No more ‘pretending to be non dual’- whatever that means.

    Fearlessly facing the shadows that you talk about.

    I am not rejecting any other therapy technique or theory, merely asking therapists to look beyond their role and techniques, to discover who they really are. Are you hiding behind your role as a therapist? Are you pretending to know when you really don’t know? Are you so busy trying to be a successful therapist, to hold up your career, that you end up missing the one in front of you? Are you really fearlessly facing your own pain, your own shadow, your own sadness, your own fear, your own failings as a therapist? Are you willing to face your own death, and beyond? Have you discovered true healing for yourself?

    The essay is a contemplative piece. I do not claim to be an expert in anything – neither non duality nor therapy nor anything in-between. I am simply asking important questions that I feel need to be asked. I value your comments.

    Jeff 😉

  6. jamesbarnes52 says:

    Hi Jeff,

    Thanks very much for that response. I wonder if you take what you are pointing to be the same ‘reality’ that Advaita Vedanta (in particular) is pointing to? If not, I wonder if you could elucidate what you think are the differences (Just to be clear, I am not asking about the differences of approach or presupposition, but only about what the ‘what is’ is taken to be given the obvious limitations of language).

    Many thanks

    James

  7. Jasper Self says:

    Dear Jeff & James,

    I have a question for you both.

    I am someone who is deeply interested in both psychology and non-duality, for more than a decade now.

    I have psychologist coming to stay with me a week, who subscribes to ‘Eastern philosophies’ / non-duality.

    Now, whilst not an expert, if I read correctly, this discussion could also be about ‘if we are already “whole”, and that ‘psychological problems’ we experience come from ‘false’ concepts/conditioning, then there is only a realisation that these ‘problems’ are illusions for us to be ‘healed’, VERSUS, ‘the above is all very well, but that realisation can’t simply come from meditation / non-dual awareness, and that there is proper ‘psychological work’ to be done.

    So, for example, if I suffer from an issue such as ‘fear of holding together a decent relationship’, which comes from my teenage years when my first couple of dates ‘rejected’ me, all I need to do is unlearn that fear/inconfidence which I have absorbed into my character, and all will be ok. If I can dissolve this harmful concept, and understand that there is no ‘fixed, concrete’ me who might have this fear, then everything will be ok.

    I would be interested to understand what you both feel would be the most productive approach – to negate there being a ‘self’ who suffers these issues, or tackle ‘the issues’ head on from the standpoint of the suffering self that claims to have the issues.

    Many thanks,

    Jasper

  8. jamesbarnes52 says:

    Jasper self: Both and neither. Rather than write a response here, which i just tried, i am going to try and write a full length response to all this hopefully for the next issue of the journal.

    Cheers,

    James

  9. Jeff Foster says:

    Jasper,

    You make an excellent point.

    Telling someone who is terrified of real, intimate relationship that they ‘have no self’, or that there is ‘nobody there to be in fear’, or that ‘there is no relationship’, isn’t necessarily going to end their suffering! It could even deepen the devastation.

    If someone is starving hungry, telling them that there is no hunger, that there is no self to be hungry, that their ‘hunger’ is a learned concept, isn’t going to end their suffering, and is probably coming from one’s own agenda to ‘push’ nonduality onto someone (ironically!).

    Grounded in this deep knowing that what I am is not a separate self but the open intimate space in which all arises, that who I am is the capacity for all experience (the essential discovery at the heart of all nondual teachings), I am more free than ever to meet the apparent other exactly where they are, here and now. And that might mean feeding them – real food, not concepts about food! That might mean exploring real, grounded, earthly, practical solutions to worldly problems, not floating about in some transcendent space, denying relative reality and pushing your own idea of ‘nonduality’.

    In nonduality, there is room for everything. It’s not about ‘coming from a nondual stance’, whatever that means. Nonduality is not ‘above’ therapy, or ‘beyond’ therapy. It is not at a ‘higher level’ than therapy – these would be more dualistic ideas, and arrogant judgements too! No, nonduality infuses all experience, all feelings, all sensations, at all ‘levels’, if we want to talk in terms of levels. And so, practically, it’s all about fearlessly meeting the client exactly where they are right now. No more hiding behind our roles as ‘therapist’ or even ‘nondual teacher’! Nothing can protect us, in this intimate meeting with the one sitting in front of us. It’s total openness to the client. A total willingness to meet them in their world, and explore from there.

    In the end I see no conflict whatsoever between nonduality and therapy (or nonduality and psychology). In fact, as I was trying to say in my essay, I see these as essentially two words for the same fearless meeting. Therapy and nonduality are not-two, in this sense. Then the question of ‘therapy OR nonduality’ falls away – the very question itself is based upon false assumptions of who we are.

    I would say this: A good therapist IS a good nondual teacher. And a good nondual teaching is therapeutic in the best sense, because it points to the wholeness within embodied experience, not above or beyond it. It does not deny relative reality but embraces it totally – it does not see the relative as ‘below’ the absolute, or the personal as ‘below’ the impersonal, or duality as ‘below’ nonduality (a huge trap that so many so-called ‘nondualists’ seem to fall into).

    Nonduality is then a total embrace of our embodied humanness – otherwise is it merely another psychological game, isn’t it?

    In this, the role of ‘therapist’ goes on, as does the role of ‘nondual teacher’ – but they can now be held very lightly. The roles no longer separate us.

    Psychological work has its place, of course, of course. Who could deny that? But if we are talking about healing, true healing, and real, intimate meeting between two human beings, I feel we must look much deeper, and be prepared to drop all our precious conclusions about what it means to be a therapist.

    All my love,

    Jeff x

  10. Roger Mahaffey says:

    If, as traditional and contemporary nondual teachings suggest, the separate self is merely an ‘illusion’ of thought and perception, and we are in essence the wide open space in which life unfolds, a space which is inseparable from that very unfolding, then what place does ‘therapy’ have in our lives?

    It seems that the place therapy has in a “nondual world” would be to help let go of neuroses and holdings that seem to be very deeply psychologically rooted regardless of how much insight or awareness we have.

    Can an illusory self really heal another illusory self?

    Ultimately since there is no self then a no-self cannot heal another no-self. Even people well versed in Advaita Vedanta and meditation can feel suffering though, sometimes they still have deeply ingrained neursoses. Maybe a non-dual psychotherapist can help investigate these tendancies or holdings exploring how we hold on to a sense of self or how these sufferings actually help maintain a sense of self. I think that we could explore seeing clearly vs. tendancies of the mind, how we can use this open space to faciliatete healing these tendancies that still arise and still cause suffering.

    Can an open space be healed by ‘another’ open space? Who, exactly, is going to do this healing? And who, exactly, is going to be healed?

    When in the presence of someone who is resting as awareness with an open heart often times I feel a tremendous exchange by just sitting with them. Can sitting with someone in simple presence give the client a chance to start identifying with this open space rather than the machinations of the mind? Its not necessarily a person being healed or a person healing but rather an open space being that space while the client attunes to that space seeing eventually that there was no attuning nor therapist or client but that space was always present regardless of the suffering machinations of the mind.

  11. Tim Carrette says:

    “The Therapist is not, therefore the Therapist is and is not..”
    I welcome Jeff’s article “Therapy without a Therapist:Non Duality,Healing and a search for wholeness”.
    I note that what Jeff has done is to set the cat amongst the pigeons of our cosy therapeutic conceptualizations and rigidly erected illusory ego-mind constructs.Steering us once again to stare in the blank open space of this mysterious existence.
    As a Psychotherapist practicing in the vastness realms of Non Duality, I think it can only be a good thing to question who we are and what we do.
    Psychotherapy often assumes too much personal responsibility and relies too much on the concept of the apparent sense of self.
    Non Duality or I should say many modern day Non Duality teachers often speak too much about the also apparent and illusory selfless character.
    Surely in the Spirit of Non Duality both self and not self need to be respected.As Wei Wu Wei so succinctly states in “Fingers pointing to the moon”.”I am not, therefore I am”.
    I note also in a subsequent response to his article Jeff supports this view “Non Duality is a total embrace of our embodied humanness”.
    The problem we always have with words and structures is they are never the absolute truth.In the Spirit of Wei Wu Wei , the moment we say a thing is , it is also therefore not.
    So for Jeff to imply that which Therapy and Therapists do, will never be the whole picture.Many of us Therapists including those apparently unaware of Non Duality will often sit with”not knowing” and hold what Fritz Perls called “creative indifference” or the “fertile void”.Similarly, Beisser states in the “Paradoxical Theory of change”that the moment we stay aware of that which “is” the change will happen.Change happens anyway.Sometimes patterns we learnt in childhood or elsewhere do block us and cause suffering.Casting the light of awareness on the process can and does evoke a shift , a more energized release of movement and ease.This is as likely in a therapy session as in a satsang, a Non Duality meeting , a traffic jam or by simply washing the dishes.
    It may happen thus in the sacred space of a therapeutic encounter that we shine a light on the patterns and processes “contained” in the limited self through which we may then glimpse our eternal self, the healed whole which we all are.
    This is happening anyway.The therapists presence is but a part of a sacred mystery which is ever present and as always moving in us and through these bodies we call “our self”.
    Some call this “moving through” God, Tao, Love or Grace.And yet its all of these and none simultaneously.For it is as the “Tao Te Ching” says ” the (Tao) which can be named is not the eternal (Tao)”.
    Names and not names, words and wordless expressions, all are sacred, all Non Dual, all everything and nothing.All that is and is not.
    The Therapist is not, therefore the Therapist is and is not…
    Tim Carrette 2011
    References:
    A.Beisser -“The Paradoxical Theory of Change” in Gestalt Therapy Now by Fagan and Sheperd.1970.
    Lao Tzu -“Tao Te Ching” from a translation by S.Mitchel 1995.
    Fritz Perls – quoted in “A Gestatlt Transpersonal perspective”.L.Williams.2006
    Wei Wu Wei – “Fingers pointing to the moon”1958

  12. Olivier says:

    Thanks for your article Jeff.

    I recently finished a training as a hypnotherapist and psychoyherapist and I realise that as much as I want to help clients and others in general it is also really “me” that I am trying to help. I’ll try and practise bearing in mind the questions you raised in the article.

    Also I like the part where you told your client that you “didn’t know”. I can relate to that in my job with autistic kids. I sometimes don’t know what is going to happen and sometimes don’t know what to do and feel that remaining silent is the best option for the situation to evolve/change “without me”, if that makes any sense…

    Thanks again Jeff.

    Olivier

    • Jazmin says:

      ultimate truth can never be put into words or concepts, so what you say -more crleibde formulations- can never be, according to the writer of the book.I do understand that it connects to the Being’ Heidegger is talking about, which connects to Tao (whatever can be said about Tao is not Tao). I think the essence of what I understood today is that Being’ is not the end point for Heidegger like it is for non-dualists who for example say that care’ is non-sense because it would be care for an illusion (the world is an illusion). The fact that Heidegger talks about care, means that he is very rooted in the world. Through what I have been reading today, I got extremely interested in him -he is close to the God is dead’ of Nietzsche, but the care points to goodness’ which is I think not there in Nietzsche (and also not in non-dualism). I think it is very interesting to look for more material on this man.I wrote the things down that I read in a search for connections with what Jeff’s blog en Stuarts post is about (non-duality, experience, familiarity -I think that connects to what Heidegger says about language- & Heidegger).

  13. Yai says:

    Great blog Jeff.I stumbled across it tonight and I am glad. Perhaps it was the SAND name?I am the Editor of a new blog called Non-Duality America -we have some similarities that I think you might find interesting.Please have a look at your convenience.The next SAND 2010 looks to be another great gathering of minds. Further exploration of science and non-duality fascinates me and it’s certainly an exciting time to be living! I just watched their 3-DVD set from 2009.Thanks again for your sharing of words here on Evolutionary Philosophy.Much Love,Matthew King

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