The Art of Trust in Therapy

The birds have vanished into the sky.
Now the last cloud drains away.

We sit together, the mountain and me,

Until only the mountain remains.

~Li Bai

When you get right down to it, there’s very little we actually know about the therapeutic encounter. We don’t know how the course of therapy will unfold. We don’t know how the client will respond to any given intervention. We don’t know what the outcome of treatment will look and feel like. And, if we’re truthful about it, we don’t even know what we will say next until the words are spoken.

Even though we know very little, our programming lulls us into thinking that we do. Without realizing it, we’re locked into confining expectations about what we’re supposed to do and what is meant to happen. But surrendering these reveals a loving and open space for clients’ unexplored feelings and hidden agendas to come out of the shadows. It leaves us open to grace, available to be guided in the most spontaneous way—and to experience the perfect expression of the timeless now, no matter what it looks like.

That’s what I love about therapy—the ease of presence, of deep allowing with no resistance, of continually being awed by the offerings of infinite intelligence free of time and space. A question, comment, or suggestion appears in my mind, and without question, I trust that it is exactly what is needed in the moment. But it wasn’t always like that.

As a beginning therapist, I entered the room loaded with fears, beliefs, and expectations. Would I say the right thing at the right time? Would I know when to deploy the best intervention? What if I didn’t know what to do? I tried diligently to apply what I had learned, deciding in my mind how to proceed rather than being receptive to the truth of the moment. As a result, I felt frustrated when clients didn’t respond as I thought they should. I had no real foundation for the work I was doing—except that I cared deeply for the people I was meeting with.

Frankly, with all my best intentions, my personal beliefs were in the way. Although I couldn’t put these words to it at that time, “I” was doing therapy with an “other,” with the goal of achieving a positive outcome. I felt the limits of this approach, which, ironically, describes how most conventional therapists work. Something just seemed off.

The search for an end to suffering changed everything. On fire for the truth, I began to appreciate how much I had been relying on confused thinking to satisfy the need to know—not just in therapy, but in my whole life. I realized I was aiming for the impossible: structuring reality with mental ideas so I felt more in control. And I didn’t really trust anything.

Ready to step out beyond what the limited sense of “I” could know, I was open to listening. I remember the moment in a session when a radical insight came to mind, and internally I asked, “You want me to say that?” I did say it, and it was the beginning of getting out of the way and wholeheartedly trusting the wisdom of pure luminous being.

I was on a roll, joyously not knowing—trusting and letting things unfold. I watched as clients’ stories unraveled—once I stopped taking any stories as real, including my own. Their deep-seated emotions were fully welcomed into presence—once I saw through the separate self that resists them.

There is no denying the beauty of meeting our clients fearlessly, both empty and full. When we know ourselves as aware presence, we are empty of anything personal that veils the natural unfolding of the therapy session. Ideas, projections, and attachments may arise as the mind’s fear-based attempt to be in charge, but we let them be. Rather than encouraging the false separation they create, we rest, empty, marinating in love.

And we are naturally full, fully intimate with no boundaries, no separation, no defenses, and nothing to do. We appear as conduits for the endless magnificence at the heart of everything.

As such, we carefully learn the theory, diagnosis, and practice of the profession, then abandon the one who needs to know it. The storehouse of information remains as part of the whole, effortlessly available as the creative art that we call therapy emerges. We delight in being fluid, not formulaic.

For clients who suffer by taking their personal stories as their identity, the ultimate healing presence is offered. The individuals we meet with are held as expressions of the one, apparent arisings inseparable from love. Totally supported to see through and shed false identities, they find their way home to realizing their essential wholeness.

Finally, after doing their best trying to manage life, they come upon the possibility of living their full humanity, free of attachment to habitual ways of being, amazed by the potential for responding to familiar situations in fresh ways. We know this healing journey intimately because it has been our own.

By being together in therapy and knowing nothing, life changes for the better, but not because the self has improved. Becoming more aligned with how things actually are reduces confusion and allows greater access to the natural states of joy, peace, and friendship.

We are continually drawn to trust the unfolding—in therapy and in life. We can’t know what will happen. We don’t know what is needed. We can only ask, “What is life wanting in this moment?” And in the answer, we open to grace. We let ourselves trust the fall into not knowing anything. And here we are—one with the totality, radiant and awake, inseparable from life itself. 

About Gail Brenner

Gail Brenner, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and writer in Santa Barbara, CA, who joyfully speaks from her own experience about the possibility of moving from common everyday problems to living in the deepest acceptance and peace. She has special expertise working with older adults and their families, bringing clear seeing and compassion to the transitions of aging, death, and dying. She meets with people both individually and in groups and blogs [], where she invites readers to question their conditioned habits and realize that freedom is always available. She is the author of the forthcoming book, “The Way of Yes: Finding Peace and Happiness Right at the Heart of Your Messy, Scary, Brilliant Life.”

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4 Responses to The Art of Trust in Therapy

  1. Spencer H. Sander says:

    That’s IT….right on the mark. Those who come to see you are fortunate in the possibility of being free. A great teacher of Vedanta said “In order to be what you truly are, you simply have to come out of what you are not”.
    In admiration,

  2. Gail Brenner says:

    Beautiful quote, Spencer. Thank you. Coming out of what we are not is the truth of each moment, so in that sense it is simple. But for many of us, it’s a continual – and delightful – ongoing process of recognition and shedding.

  3. Dear Gail,

    This is a gorgeous piece. Thank you for sharing so openly. You describe in a way that I have not been able to what “I” attempt in my work–a melding of Peter Fenner’s non-dual approach and more recently, the work of Terry Sheldon, M.D. and Beatrice Sheldon, MSW, which is called CIMBS (standing for Complex Integration of Multiple Brain Systems–a cumbersome name to be sure, but it’s anything but cumbersome in practice…we call it “The Love Corral” in our training groups. ).



  4. Gail Brenner says:

    Thanks so much, Sean. I read a little about CIMBS, and it sounds like a beautiful, presence-centered way of holding space for others.

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