Fiona Robyn writes: In a recent interview on Tricycle with Tibetan Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, he quotes a Tibetan proverb: The best guru is one who lives at least three valleys away. He goes on to say that this means "..you receive the teaching and some initiatory consecration—and then you don't hang out with that person to see how ordinary they are!"
Before the quote he compares Buddhist teachers to psychotherapists in our work with the unconscious. We require our spiritual teachers and our therapists to maintain a kind of authority and 'seperateness' so we can project our subconcious material onto them in order for it to be worked through. He implies that this is more difficult when our relationship with our spiritual guide or therapist is more like the relationships we have with our friends.
So how necessary is it that, as Buddhist psychotherapists, we keep this kind of distance from our clients? How much do we need to protect them from our 'ordinariness'? Do we need to live at least three valleys away too?
I currently work from home and so my psychotherapy clients arrive at my front door (passing my Buddha statue and the flowers in my front garden), enter the hall-way (often greeted by one of my three cats) and walk up the stairs and past several closed doors to enter my therapy room. Evidence of my life-not-as-a-therapist is all around them.
I've chosen the pictures in my therapy room, and they can see my old varnished school desk in the corner where I do my writing. There is another small Buddha on the bookcase, and all the books I've chosen to buy and keep are there for them to see.
Is this OK? Or am I at risk of becoming too ordinary (or too flawed?) to play the role of holder-of-their-projections?
These questions are interesting questions for me, and there is obviously much I could explore here. I have no definitive answers to offer you. I can speak from my own experience. But in the end I think the most important thing is for us each to find our own way.
I do know that I'm more human and open with my clients than I was when I started practising. My stricter boundaries when I started out as a therapist were sometimes more about protecting me than they were about protecting my clients. I no longer worry about my clients seeing an occasional tear when something they've said moves me, or hold back from suggesting a poem they could read which might be helpful. We might talk about how it feels to see me moved, or for me to suggest a poem - all of this material becomes just more grist for the mill.
But I still think it is very important that our relationship is different from a friendship. There is the fact of the power imbalance in the room - I decide how long sessions are, when they take place, and when I go away on breaks. My clients are the ones who are speaking about their difficulties, and so it's inevitable that their vulnerability is more on show. I have particular responsibilities towards my clients - to keep our therapeutic space as safe as it can be, and to sometimes hold strong when the boundaries are tested. My focus is on the client and our therapeutic work. Theirs is on themselves and their world. The relationship is not 'equal' in the way a friendship is equal.
If I wasn't an ordinary human being, I'm not sure that any therapy would take place at all. It's important for me that my clients encounter my humanity, and that what we're having is a real relationship, albeit one with unusual and particular limitations and depth.
But if I invite my client into my kitchen for a cup of tea after our sessions, then I also don't think we the therapeutic work would reach the same depths that we reach with me holding a particular kind of distance.
Maybe a valley and a half is about the right distance...
I'd be interested in your thoughts in the comments section below.
'The deep valley' by angelocesare via Creative Commons