The aim of this paper is to sketch the basic principles of a phenomenological approach to counselling and psychotherapy. The method I have adopted is to high-light what seem important themes. These have been chosen in part because they help to reveal the nature of the phenemonological perspective and in part because of their relevance to contemporary psychotherapy generally. Phenomenology is a good basis from which to attempt an integration of methods and principles and it therefore seems important to address themes of wide application. In order to help bring the argument to life I have made a number of references to Hamlet, a literary work which weaves several of these themes into a major human drama.
Phenomenology is the study of perception and consciousness. Counselling is the dialogue which takes place when two people, counsellor and client, give their full joint attention to an inquiry into the perception and consciousness of matters which concern one of them, namely the client. Psychotherapy is counselling in depth. It is the inquiry by dialogue into matters which are fundamental to the client's character and way of life. In these definitions the term dialogue should be taken in a broad sense. Dialogue can include any form of interactive self-expression and, therefore, includes work in a variety of expressive media. In this paper the terms counsellor and therapist will be used inter-changeably.
Phenomenology was, in origin, a reaction to the fact that science has traditionally only concerned itself with what is "objective" and measurable. Phenomenology draws attention to the facts that no perception is entirely objective, that every perception owes as much to the mentality of the perceiver as it does to the structure of the object, and that a great deal of human experience is non-repeatable and so virtually unmeasurable. In this respect phenomenology is with Hamlet when he tells his rationalist friend (after they have seen the apparition):
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." (Hamlet, I.5)
The two lines immediately before this in the play are:
Horatio: ..but this is wondrous strange
Hamlet: And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
In this respect, phenomenology is also in line with Hamlet as regards method. The phenomenological method is to try to approach phenomena with a fresh, open and welcoming mind, as coming upon something new, wonderful and strange. It requires a willingness to welcome what is unfamiliar and to be able to regard what is familiar with the same freshness as one perceives what is new.
The phenomenological method developed by Edmund Husserl involved an attempt to suspend pre-conceptions. What is most characteristic of the phenomenological approach is the attempt to refrain from pidgeon-holing things. It is an attempt at greater innocence of perception. This means allowing things to, as it were, speak for themselves. This method of inquiry is initially descriptive. It requires a willingness to enter into view-points other than one's own. It requires a suspension of judgement.
COUNSELLING AS PHENOMENOLOGICAL INQUIRY
A person comes to a counsellor in order to get a fresh view. The counsellor's advantage over friends and relatives is that he/she does not have a vested interest and so can have an open mind. Clients present matters in which they have been immersed for a long time, the phenomena of their lives. The counsellor sees them for the first time. Counselling is, in the first instance, an attempt to get a fresh perspective.
The counsellor begins by simply describing what appears to his/her eyes and ears. The initial task of the counsellor is to be a clear mirror. Counselling begins with reflection, with a description which is as free from distortions as possible. This is a description not just of what is said by the client but of the whole phenomenon, the whole of what appears before the counsellor, which includes the fact that the client has come, that the client has said one thing rather than another, that the client has a certain manner, is at ease or not and so on. If the counsellor begins the dialogue, it is likely to be with some such remark as "So you have come.. and you look anxious."
The client is soon focused upon material which he/she finds coming up spontaneously. This is living material and so it can speak for itself. The counsellor and client are soon engaged in a joint inquiry into what the client finds "inside" or "beyond" him/herself. The best counselling/therapy seems to occur when this material is allowed to "speak" in its own terms. The therapist needs empathy and a warm welcoming manner for whatever wondrous strange apparitions may arise in the consciousness of the client. The client needs to suspend critical judgement in order to see/feel what is there.
As we live, we experience. As we experience, we seek to make sense of what is happening. Making sense means integrating experience into a coherent story or mythology. Uninterpreted raw experience would be fleeting and unintelligible, like those dreams which we forget on waking. Experience, however, does not come before making sense. The two processes are actually one process. Perception is the contact between the mind's attempt to understand, and the "outside" world. The mind does not just passively receive sensations, it actively pays attention and organizes what it sees. What is seen, therefore, depends upon the "culture" of the perceiver. I know a chair when I see one because of past experience.
We automatically put a construction upon what we perceive. As we communicate with others we realize that in most cases there is more than one construction possible. The fact that some constellation of circumstance is construed as a "problem" by one person, for instance, does not mean that it will be similarly construed by someone else. Whether something is a problem or not depends upon the motives and aspirations of the person concerned. Absence of food is not a problem for a hunger striker.
The process of counselling/therapy is a dialogue from which new meanings emerge. These may come from a change of perspective. They often come from the initial innocent reappraisal of the situation which counselling invites. The material which comes up in the client is alive and "reveals" a sense of itself which may be novel to the client even though the client was already familiar with the "facts". When the client looks anew at what comes up, it constellates itself into patterns which the therapist and client can discuss or play with. Metaphors emerge. Images come to mind. The counsellor is willing to go with the flow of the client's consciousness and to be immersed in it.
This becoming immersed in the client's world sets up a resonnance between the therapist and client such that the therapist begins to experience in a way which parallels the experience of the client. By lending him/herself to the client in this way the therapist becomes rather like an amplifier. The signal from the client is amplified as the therapist resonnates with it. Counselling as a phenomenological inquiry is a joint effort. The client is invited to look at whatever arises without censoring it and the therapist tries to resonnate with the client's experience. In this way, between the two, a great deal more of the client's experience and intuition is brought to light.
In the counselling situation there are basically three separate but interacting phenomenal fields. One is the inner world of the client. This can only be perceived directly by the client. The counsellor becomes aware of it through the client's report. The second is the inner world of the therapist. This is only available to the client insofar as the therapist reports upon it. We say that the therapist who does so becomes "transparent". The third field is what is perceptible in the here and now in the room. This includes the client's manner, tone, and body language, and the simple facts of the situation - that the client is here, talking, dressed in a certain way and so on.
The therapist, therefore, has three types of response, according to the field upon which attention is fixed. When the attention is upon the client's inner world we talk of empathy. When it is upon the therapist's own inner response, we talk of congruence, transparency and immediacy. When it is upon the here and now situation we talk about empathic observation. It would be useful to have more satisfactory terminology for this last form of response, which is often very valuable.
An example of the first might be:
"It sounds as though the events you have just described were frightening for you."
An example of the second might be:
"As you described it, I noticed that I started to feel quite tense."
An example of the third might be:
"You have curled up in your chair."
All three types of response form part of the inquiry aspect of counselling. They provide an innocent description or what is apparent.
Beyond pure description, the counsellor invites the client to carry the inquiry into him/herself. If the client gets a particular feeling or image, the counsellor will be interested to know whether this "says" anything to the client. In virtually every school of therapy, the value of lingering over material, so that associations may form, so that it may reveal itself more clearly, so that it may evolve under its own dynamic, is affirmed. Even the purely descriptive, reflective response invites the client to linger on a moment of consciousness which would otherwose have been glossed over. This lingering enables the client to look/listen again, to see/hear what the "inner voice" may have to say.
Like Hamlet, we must wait upon the ramparts for the appearance of those apparitions which may have a message for us and for the client in particular. Although such apparitions may at first be alarming, a certain boldness is required if the therapeutic venture is to be seen through. Everything is not revealed all at once and we may need to persist. "It will not speak; then I will follow it" says Hamlet.
SELF AND BEYOND
Much psychology is portrayed as a finding of one's self. Clearly, however, self is an enigma. The history of psychotherapy begins with Freud's investigation of the unconscious. The phenomenon we call the unconscious is the fact that there is something beyond the self which we are conscious of. We are more than what we think we are. The unconscious accounts for those times when "I am not myself". Effective therapy is not so much focussed upon self as focussed upon what is beyond self. The client is searching. This search is the stuff of many myths. In chivalrous Christendom it was the search for the grail.
Calling this mystery the unconscious gives a sense that it is in some way within the reach of science and part of oneself. Phenomenologically - that is, in the pure experiencing - it feels to the person as something beyond. The images which arise spontaneously in one's mind, where do they come from? One does not know. Inquiring into them one discovers (or constructs) meanings about life. These have a very personal relevance, just as did the message which Hamlet received from the ghost. To our ancestors this was evidence of the spirit world and its relevance to us. To the modern mind it is evidence of the unconscious mind and repression. These are simply two different mythologies attempting to explain the same phenomenon.
We think that this change has advanced our understanding but it has actually just relocated the mystery. In order to accommodate this mystery within us, modern psychology must divide the self into the known and the unknown parts, sometimes called the ego and the self respectively and this can result in considerable confusion of terminology. As therapists we probably still have to accept that there is a good deal of mystery about all this and allow ourselves to not have to know everything. The phenomenological approach is freeing in this respect. We can use the different mythologies that are available to us without having to become "believers" or to accept a particular creed, even the creed we call science.
When something happens for the first time it is called spontaneous. When it has happened many times it is part of the culture. Humans have a unique capacity to record their culture. We all, therefore, have access to a wealth of history and this shapes and clothes our perceptions. It also means that we have all this cultural wealth at our disposal when we are seeking to make sense of our experience. We are talking here not just of grand culture - art, literature and so forth - but also the personal culture of the individual, shaped in its unique way by a lifetime of experience.
As the counselling process unfolds there almost invariably starts to emerge a process of building new metaphors. We attempt to throw light upon our experience by drawing a parallel with something different. The metaphor may be introduced by the client or by the counsellor, but, if it is going to "work", it needs to have come out of the material presented in a spontaneous way. The introduction of metaphor enables the counsellor and client to "play" with the matter in hand, to experiment, to loosen up.
Often metaphors begin as spontaneously arising images. "As you said that, I got a picture in my mind of .....". As soon as the image is introduced into the dialogue it begins to be transformed. This is the creativity of therapy.
CONSTRUCTION AND INTERPRETATION
In some schools of therapy, it is believed that what is happening in the this process is analysis, that it is a reducing of a phenomenon to its underlying constituents. Phenomenologists are inclined to see the process as constructivist rather than analytical. The interpretation is not a reduction to underlying elements, so much as a construction put upon the phenomenon which adds to its meaningfulness.
Adopting a constructivist perspective means that there is less concern with finding out which is the "right" interpretation or construction. What is more important is to generate constructions which are satisfying, and which have teansformative power. The various schools of analytical therapy have each offered frameworks from which personal mythologies can be constructed. These frameworks, in turn, draw upon the traditional mythologies of our culture, particularly its Greek roots. There is a harnessing here of "timeless wisdom" and this is very valuable. From the phenomenological perspective, we see these different schools as enriching the imaginative possibilities, and do not become narrowed by an attept to sort out which is "right". To decide whether Freud or Jung was right is probably analogous to making a similar judgement between Dickens and Shakespeare.
ACTUALIZING AND TRANSCENDING TENDENCIES
Phenomenology is an attempt to make us more rigorous in our attempt to throw off bias and pre-conception and phenomenological therapy is an attempt to make us more open-minded and open hearted for our clients. As therapists we need a belief in the efficacy of the natural process which is at work. In humanistic branches of phenomenology this constructive growth process is called the "self-actualizing tendency". This idea is an example of a modern myth which has powerful transforming effect. The idea of self-actualization freed us from the narrow mechanistic ideas of academic psychology and made room for human potential.
Like all myths, this one has its blind spots as well as its strengths. There is very little written in the person-centred literature about death, disease, loss, guilt, tragedy and the other basic existential dilemmas we are prey to. The optimistic spirit prevails over all. It is difficult to escape, however, from the impression that a person is not actually the centre of the universe and the self is not the pinnacle of creation. It is the confrontation with powers greater than oneself which is often the making or breaking of a person. If the universe is in some sense a whole, then a person is part of something greater than self.
The notion of a self-actualizing tendency owes something to western twentieth century individualism and may well prove to be a transient myth - but no less powerful in its time for that. We seem now to be moving into a time when there is greater concern with a spiritual or transcending dimension of existence and an interest in living in harmony with the forces of nature rather than in putting man at the centre of all things.
The ghost called to Hamlet from beyond himself and set him on a course about which he was quite reluctant. The play, like many great dramas, shows the unfolding of fate as much as the realization of an individual. It is this interplay between person and cosmos which is the drama of our being and the basis of all great mythologies. In ways small and large it is also the content or implication of much therapy.
As phenomenological therapists we trust the natural process but, I suggest, we do so more in the spirit of one who stands in awe before something greater than self than in that of one who wants to reach a personal apotheosis either for the client or for him/herself.
ACCEPTANCE AND TRANSFORMATION
Hamlet still speaks to us so clearly because we can readily identify with his difficulty in coming to terms with his situation. It is so like our own. Neither his inner voice nor his outer circumstances will give him peace. We recognise, too well, his most characteristic responses, which are to anguish about his lot and to procrastinate rather than act.
In a way, Hamlet's problem is that he has become too sophisticated. He is convinced that his father was murdered. Half of him believes he should avenge the murder. Half of him flinches from such a blood thirsty deed. Half of him is rationalist and scientific and half of him is haunted by the unseen powers. Half of him loves Ophelia and half of him is still obsessed with his mother. Half of him would like to die and half of him believes that even that would provide no respite from his torment. All he lacks is a therapist!
A weakness of the phenomenological stance can sometimes, initially, seem to be a lack of direction. If everything is to be "horizontalized" so that we cannot decide what is right and what wrong, what to be listened to and what ignored, how can we act? Will we not be left like Hamlet in an irresolvable dilemma, able to understand everyone but, for that very reason, unable to act?
Trust in the natural process implies that "it will all look after itself". It also suggests that it does not really always matter too much whether a person chooses one course of action rather than another. There are, in fact, usually many "good" courses of action to choose from, and even those which seem "bad" have something to teach us if we are willing to accept responsibility for the consequences.
The fact that phenomenology is coming to the fore in our modern, or perhaps one should say "post-modern" society, is a sign that we are moving into a new consciousness. This new consciousness is more accepting and more variegated, more concerned with finding harmony in diversity than with discovering the one true path. It is less warlike. It is multi-faceted rather than uni-directional. By learning to be more accepting we are transforming ourselves and our culture. As therapists we are part of, perhaps at the
leading edge of, this transformation.
Of course not everybody shares this new consciousness, but its coming is probably a necessity if we are to make a successful adjustment to a post-conflict era and a world civilization. It may be objected that these comments being at a global and political level have nothing to do with therapy but this sort of objection is invalid. Our consciousness of our world and our consciousness of ourselves are not in water tight compartments. The nature of our lives and the therapy they require is a reflection of the world we perceive and the world we perceive is a reflection of our individual lives. It is all of a piece.
This paper has high-lighted some aspects of phenomenological counselling and psychotherapy. Both phenomenology and therapy are products and symptoms of the development of consciousness in our times. Although the dialogue of counsellor and client is a very private and personal affair, it is also an inquiry into the existential matters which are of concern to us all. Every piece of therapy is both personal and universal. Phenomenology enables us to carry our therapeutic work forward in a spirit of inquiry free from dogmatism and with a respect for the natural processes at work within us and in our world, forces we are still far from fully understanding. It makes this lack of understanding, not a weakness, a flaw in our omnipotence, but rather a strength, a support for our willingness to approach respectfully "the things themselves" be they ever so "wondrous strange".