When Presence Is the Psychotherapist


Rob and I have worked together for about a year, with me in the role of his therapist. We share a passionate engagement peering into the mystery of consciousness in very different ways and exploring how this lives in our psychological and emotional lives. He, too, is a professional psychotherapist.

Over an eighteen month time period he and I have completed about 50 sessions together. I’m approximately 20 years older than Rob but there’s a sense that we know each other as traveling companions on the pathless path, navigating a road that opens up out of nowhere, moment by moment.

In writing what is to follow there’s a curious sense of me throwing myself some kind of explanatory life belt before I can no longer find any point of reference in the immensity of the ocean I’m quite obviously an indivisible part of. And, there’s no alarm at this prospect of drowning back into what I’ve always been: gathering delight, certainly; exultation, bliss and joy, for sure. Still, I want to try and sketch this moment of discovering the inherent naturalness of swimming.

“Everyone you see, you say to them, ‘Love Me,’”

Our most recent session, once the ‘Hi-how-are-you?’ moments passed began with my feeling very shy. I acknowledged my experience to Rob, and he said that something similar was true for him – our previous session had been remarkable for a depth and openness manifest to us both. Mulling over my experience of shyness I took a risk and said that the next word up for me was “love.”

Rob’s eyes softened – I could feel it in that moment and I see it on the video of the session. Men are highly trained in the risks of loving each other and very often averse to it but a felt experience of safety has gradually opened in our sessions, especially recently. Both of us have been experiencing moments, then moments becoming sustained, then noticeable interludes of the separation between us softening and beginning to vanish. Both of us recognize this remarkable phenomenon, and cherish it.

“Everyone you see, you say to them, ‘Love Me,’” begins a Daniel Ladinsky translation of a poem by the great mystic Hafiz. The softness in Rob’s eyes when I say that my word is love bespeaks what every one of us is yearning to hear. Without exception – and I hope you won’t find me polemical when I say this – each and every one of us yearns for love. Rob yearns for love, and when he hears me speak it, feels the truth of it, his eyes melt.

Now, the risk, the hazard of translating this into the language of psychology: the need for love is an unhealed childhood wound; ruptured attachment of some kind, a void, a lack, a deficiency.

Each one of us should have gotten our separate selfhood fixed, saturated with love and thereby satisfied early on. Then, from there on out in life, no problems.

But the paradigm of this is deceptive to its roots. The implied reality of a separate selfhood, the paradigm all of us operate from despite the enormous and inextinguishable suffering of it, is absolutely bogus. We are nothing but relationship, from beginning to end and our yearning for love is the equally inextinguishable declaration of this truth.

The softening in Rob’s eyes says all of this, immediately and directly. He is wordlessly stating his Great Being, his readiness to affirm the truth of what he cannot help being, at all times, under all circumstances. Rob wants to be the inextinguishable fountain of love, and he wants to be the recipient of this same fountain from me. And these are not two.

I could have called this article Wordless Therapy. I watch the video of Rob, five minutes into the session and his eyes are soft with a wisdom and recognition that has precisely the same quality as the swimming of the raven’s wings as they pass over my house and head into the mountains for the night. Yes, thoughts flit within the inner space of both of us, feelings flicker up and vanish – and deepeningly, our connectedness, the ineradicable and sacred space of the I-that-is-we manifests as the real energy of our session. Healing, the palpable and obvious gathering of wholeness, is happening as we sit quietly together.

Rob acknowledges that what has already occurred in this brief segment of the session is itself unbidden. We laugh together at the absurdity of this. Both of us are attuned to the exquisite nature of the uncaused, both of us resonate with the recognition of the emergent within us and between us that is like the essence of yearning. All we want is the unbidden. All our protections are against the unbidden. Everything in us that proclaims separate selfhood is the polar opposite of the uncaused.

Yet it is the uncaused that we rush passionately towards whenever it appears in our lives. Love, catastrophe, helpless need; someone we’ve fallen in love with, the overweight dachshund made homeless and ownerless by Hurricane Katrina, a dying friend. We can’t help ourselves. The call from the core of us is unmistakable and irresistible. By contrast, the caused, whether it be in the form of a self-help affirmation, or a politician’s blaming another politician immediately triggers distrust and a sense of the superficial in us. There is none of the manifest sacred that is the signature of the uncaused.

The Story Takes Us Deeper

In every therapy or coaching session there is a single lesson. I could express this as ‘Trust the Moment,’ or ‘How? Be Here Now.’ There are no exceptions to this rule. Working with Rob I have repeatedly found that surrender to this dictum is the royal road for deepening our work. In fact, he’s so willing to go wherever his process takes him that for me to insist on some other direction would be at best inelegant and worst, misleading, or even damaging. I trust him, and he trusts me trusting him.

As the wave of our being together in love and laughter begins to settle Rob’s thoughts turn to his experiences over the past weekend. His fiancée emotionally overextends herself in her effort to find connection, this past weekend with Rob’s younger brother. She then became reactive and angry towards Rob’s brother for failing to fulfill her needs. Rob’s own reactivity to her anger and distress is to become depressed and withdrawn, in which state he cannot help her with her needs for connection.

Rob muses aloud about his discovery that every significant upwelling in his emotional life reflects a need. I echo back to him ‘…how intrinsic, how innocent this is, in the very center of this need.’ Rob, reliably faithful to his experience continues to sit inwardly connected with this sensed and felt need and in due course he becomes curious. Am I, he wonders, someone who needs connection, or is this a misperception of a deeper level? Already, his dropping voice timbre and a clear sense of him steadying into somewhere much more fundamental in himself presages what happens next.

The orientation itself, he wonders aloud: am I a separate individual? I can’t help myself in this moment: laughter wells up in me, celebratory tears fill my eyes and I start to clap my hands and call out “Yayyyy!!!!” because he has broken through into reality. “That there’s two, that’s a misperception” he says, his voice continuing to drop into tones resonant in my own abdomen, “not recognizing the intimacy.” His eyes are soft. “There’s an individuality here and an individuality over there, but they’re not separate,” he says with resonant authority from the center of his heart.

“When that misperception, that orientation is seen through, how much more freedom I have, room I have,” he remarks. Rob’s gaze is steady, profoundly connected, full of presence. He reports something really settling in his belly.

Taking the Place of the Other

We are sitting largely silently together for many seconds at a time now. My own experiences are astonishing and completely engaging for me: I’m looking at myself as I look at Rob. I don’t mean this metaphorically but completely literally. The words of Shantideva, a revered 8th century Tibetan teacher hover in the back of my mind:
Whoever wishes quickly to become
a refuge for himself and others,
should undertake this sacred mystery:
to take the place of others, giving them his own.

Shantideva calls it a sacred mystery because that is manifestly and vividly what is occurring as I seemingly sit and look at Rob in our session. In the paradigm of thought and separate things, in the entire apparent world in which Rob and I are separate beings it can make no sense that his appearance before me is manifestly nothing but myself. Yet when this self-evidently sacred mystery shows up the diamond-clear sense of the presence of healing is completely palpable.

Allow me a brief digression. We are, by and large, utterly convinced that the paradigm of ourselves as separate beings other and distinct from the world is reality. Only rarely does someone like Shantideva find themselves so riven by the suffering inherent in this paradigm that they resolve to find a deeper truth, or die in the attempt.

Searching for this deeper truth means gradually rejecting all assumptions: everything, without exception is up for grabs: the assumed nature of myself; the apparent existence of time; space itself. The density of the jungle of what we take to be so, of seeming reality is not easily pierced.

The appearance of separation is so powerful that most people only have the briefest momentary glimpses of holes in the sheer indubitability of it. Love, orgasm, heart-stopping beauty, great art, catastrophe and death momentarily pierce the seeming solidity of separation. And each one of these comes with its own apparent cause, and the shift in consciousness is attributed to the cause, and the experiences vanish again, to be longed for, or dreaded. Hardly anybody hangs on like grim death in order to follow their investigation of what is really true all the way to the very root.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle in this journey is that a search is going on. And naturally enough, in a search there is a gap in time between now, and how things are – and then, when what we seek will be found. Searching for the truth, or happiness? Don’t look here, it obviously is elsewhere, since this very place is already fully explained: I am here, the possessor of these eyes, the body-being with ownership of this nervous system, separate from the computer monitor upon which these words are appearing. And that I might be, intrinsically and completely, uninterruptedly every moment causelessly happy and fulfilled, that possibility is quite simply far-fetched.

Our thought process is so pervasive and so deeply entrenched that it is very difficult to cultivate the degree of focus needed to pierce directly to this very moment of now. Anybody who’s tried to meditate will report to you the unending stream of verbiage flowing through their minds. So foundational is this stream that it seems like it is itself the flow of time. Only rarely does someone notice that in the microscopic gaps between the thoughts is a dimension altogether other, and beyond time.

Or, sometimes someone will notice that the reality of their immediately obvious interior is without form or content. That they clearly have neither name nor gender and that their most obvious and inescapable reality is more like a luminous, timeless openness than it resembles the pictures of themselves in mirrors and photographs.

These glimpses of the uncaused in the core of ourselves are profoundly exciting – and completely befuddling to the story of separation. If what I most deeply am is beyond identity, has no limits (being openness itself) and could never be any other time than this very instant of the moment – then who the heck is the anxious one worrying about tomorrow, insecure about their place in the world, filled with disturbance about relationships and about the risk of dying?

Gradually, there is a devolution, a spiraling emergence down out of time into this moment. Recognizing the intrinsic prior existence of that which cannot be named before thought springs up to colonize it, a gradual happiness fills the explorer: in this inescapable moment of now there turns out to be a safety and completion without end. The fact that this is completely ordinary, intimate with all things, and utterly clarifies the nature of the statement “I am” causes wonderment and tremendous gratitude. The gray canopy of thoughts that seemingly filled the whole sky begins to dissipate in the focused warmth of disbelief and insistence on direct experience. Not only was the sky never not here, but what I most deeply and intimately am is that sky, unlimited and eternal.

The Dignity of the Causeless

Were I to show you a snapshot of Rob, sitting in his chair across from me thirty minutes into our session you would see someone filled with a dignity sourced in the causeless. He shares the manifest room he has, the freedom, the enjoyment. His gaze is very still, and completely encompasses me. There is love and wisdom in his eyes. Tears come and go in both our eyes, the softness of love and care and beauty welling up and overflowing without cause.

Both of us laugh, spontaneously and abruptly when he asks with animation, referring to the manifest undivided space in which our two individualities are like mountain peaks seen from above, peeking out of a single mist, “What the hell is this!?!?”. He remarks he feels bathed in nourishment, and goes on to say how excited he feels about the potentiality of relationship, and sharing it. Rob’s luminosity and precision about things psychological emerges into a twinkling and heartfelt reflection on the sorrow inherent in the narcissistic narrowing of love’s immensity. This love, this palpable obviousness both of us are bathed in right now.

Never Not Here

Words are always spoken from a point of view so the challenge in writing this is to give voice to the spread out buoyant generosity that embraces us both, that is palpably us both. Recognizing our immersion in this source – that we manifestly are – we quietly celebrate healing together. I know the word ‘healing’ connotes wholeness, but until these shared-in-session moments spring out of nowhere and shake me with the deepest pleasure possible for me, I cannot quite take in that healing does not and cannot truly flow from one person to another, but is a gathering back into the inclusiveness that is never not here.

My eyes are full of spontaneous tears, moved by the unending moment of the immediacy we are sharing. The particular quality of kindness without end and a deep courage and curiosity beaming out from Rob’s eyes and face unerringly resonates with the heart-space truth that we are riding the crest of the moment together. We are manifestly not two, yet there is none of the blurring implied by the statement that we are one, for we are not two, yet unmistakably and entirely individualistically not one, amidst an embracing certainty of the undivided about which there can be no doubt whatsoever. Call it love – I am helpless and guessing here.

In the closing minutes of the session Rob acknowledges the quickening and the deepening that happens in our gatherings together, and the supportiveness of them. He reflects his pleasure and the strength that comes from the quality of discovering his own autonomy, his own unique answers to the existential puzzles his life poses for him. We marvel together at how our initial burst of laughter and love has unfolded into this, inhabiting us both until we vibrate resonantly like singing wineglasses.

Resonanting Presence

“When two or three are gathered together in my name,” Jesus is supposed to have remarked, “I am there in the midst of them.” This remark is a statement about presence, which is manifestly and self-evidently divine the moment it is directly experienced. Something (yet not in any way a thing) is the conscious presence-essence of every experience. But we live embedded in the conviction of ourselves as separate beings. Each one of us compellingly and convincingly imagines ourselves peering out through the TV cameras of our eyes at a world that is other. When a Shantideva, a Hafiz, a Jesus pierces through this veil and then turns to invite us too to trust our direct experience and to risk shattering thought they do so with an unmistakable quality of presence. Then the healing quality of this presence echoes down the centuries.

Amidst this extraordinarily powerful thought-wrought delusion of separateness the true mystery and miracle of presence hardly ever becomes apparent. Thought does its thing with words like ‘consciousness,’ ‘awareness,’ or ‘presence’, tucking the living reality of this universe-animating essence into yet one more pocket of the known. Perhaps I will appear to be talking about an internal experience two people have when, like radiant electric fires warming each other, ‘intersubjectivity’ becomes manifest or ‘the intersubjective field’ is apparent. Terms like ‘transpersonal’ tend to skip over the uniquely personal experience intrinsically embedded in the session described above, flowering as the presence Rob and I share emerges from nowhere into manifestation.

Many times during the miracle of the session I’ve described here, almost swooning in a beauty and pleasure that is both the quintessence of this world yet also the clearest possible heralding of an unlimited reality beyond even death, I wish to myself you could taste this. I hope here and there in these paragraphs, amidst these thoughts, you find yourself glimpsing what you truly are. When this happens, when presence is the psychotherapist, healing happens.

About Glenn Francis

Glenn Francis, Psy.D has had a passionate interest in ending the suffering of seeming separation for more than 40 years. Interweaving spirituality and psychotherapy, amidst prolonged immersion in the inner work of Osho, Jean Klein, and a host of non-dual teachers, Glenn has offered healing work to people for the last 25 years. Glenn is currently an intern psychotherapist in San Rafael (see http://drglennfrancis.com); his coaching website and work with emotional eating can be found at http://iunfold.org.


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One Response to When Presence Is the Psychotherapist

  1. Tom Rhodes says:

    This is beautifully written, and it feels so nice to resonate and dance with the transmission of both the stillness and the heartfelt movement of it all.. Those sessions do, indeed, transcend words, and yet here they are.. Thank you for sharing this, tom—

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