Tears streamed down her face in the silence that followed. The woman, middle-aged, had just told us that the experience of speaking in this circle of people was the first time in her life she felt the full presence of others genuinely hearing her emotional pain.
An extraordinary statement, wouldn’t you say? How common is this phenomenon? After many years volunteering at a phone-in Distress Centre in a large city, followed by studies and training in psychology, the regrettable answer is – very common. That is why a large number of people seek out the services of psychological and/or spiritual counsellors. Historically, people in despair sought out individuals in spiritual ministry.
Yet, until the later decades of the twentieth century – in an increasingly secularized Euro-western culture – social stigmas were thrust upon individuals who sought out psychiatric help. For those who did, many mental health afflictions were not accurately identified, so that they either were not appropriately treated or were totally overlooked. Worse, people to this day who deserve informed, and compassionate, support still might never receive it, and sometimes take their own lives.
The emotional pain to which I refer in the opening anecdote, however, speaks to a more widespread human dilemma. I am referring to the sense of disconnection within us when our soul is not welcomed in the world. This dilemma may or may not extend to, and include, the more clearly definable severe chemical imbalances that require medical, as well as psycho-therapeutic, interventions.
What I became aware of thirty years ago, working at a Distress Centre, is the prevalence of profound and, at times, life-threatening, human loneliness based upon bad experiences in interrelationships, absence of community and a sense of powerlessness. In fact, I now witness the same losses and human isolation in the rural region where I currently reside.
As far back as the 1950s though, Austrian psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl referred to the existential vacuum – namely, a lack of meaningfulness in life – that he witnessed in North America. Frankl’s seminal book Man’s Search for Meaning became well-known in academic and psychological circles. In it he spoke from his own experiential knowledge of what inner resources within his own psyche he connected with, to keep his sanity and survive captivity in a Nazi death camp. His book’s content continues to be relevant.
But, the people who choose vocations to help others sometimes neglect their own emotional and spiritual care, and do so unconsciously. This dilemma was addressed more than 25 years ago in Women Who Love Too Much by psychotherapist Robin Norwood, which broke new ground in even naming it. This book – and its sequel inspired by the huge response to her first book – number among many excellent books that I researched, to explore my own patterns as a helping professional, in order to name and transform them.
Acknowledging our inner life is vital for both women and men. Doing so is most imperative among those in helping professions and related callings, who devote so much energy to the welfare of other people. The reason is, during my research through the 1990s, I discovered a disturbing trend. Helping professionals were dropping out of their respective vocations in growing numbers, because of serious, repeated burnout and subsequent physical health problems.
My opening anecdote refers to a circle of helping professionals, who gathered in Toronto in the mid-1990s, to participate in a series of weekend workshops led by American spiritual psychologist Tom Yeomans. Among his transformative activities, Dr. Yeomans trains helping professionals in the concepts and practices of a spiritual psychology called psychosynthesis. It’s approach is focused on facilitating connection with our soul.
What `giving presence’ or `being present’ means, therefore, is much more than merely showing up. It means `witnessing’ and `bearing witness,’ beyond intellectually hearing and presuming to analyze words and body language being spoken. Instead, the essential `active listening’ calls us to open our heart and soul to pay attention to another human soul reaching out for connection.
Indeed, Tom Yeomans points out that the soul not feeling welcomed in the world is one of the most devastating sources of human pain evident today, and it often begins in early childhood. Psychotherapists John Firman and Ann Gila describe this phenomenon in their book The Primal Wound, A Transpersonal View of Trauma, Addiction and Growth (1997). They suggest that the void that occurs from a split in our consciousness is what seeds our collective societal materialism and preoccupations, fed by the mass media, focused on sex, violence, power, control and addictions.
Giving presence, conversely, is a humble and simple act. Some years ago, a friend’s daughter invited me to be present during the home birth of her first child, assisted by a midwife. I sat quietly in the background, and visualized energies of serenity and love, with silent prayers that all will be well. Some days later, Lise thanked me for the strength and reassurance that she had felt me sending her and the baby, energetically. The gift that I received was feeling trusted to participate in welcoming a new soul into this world.
To sum up, giving presence works both ways. We receive what we give. We cannot give unless the potential recipient calls upon us to be present. In other words, we cannot force our affection upon someone unwilling to receive it. The door of another person’s heart needs to be open to receive love. What we then might be asked to give is not whatever expertise we might have to offer but instead, more soulfully, our loving attention.
What we receive can never be anticipated, and may not be realized through words. Rather, it can be based upon us simply having the grace to appreciate the opportunity to express our loving kindness and enhance someone else’s well-being, whether a loved one, a colleague, an acquaintance or a total stranger.