What heals?

Surely, this is the question that most puzzles psychotherapists when thinking about their work. What about the meeting of two people (sometimes more) that can resolve personal difficulties and promote an overall sense of well-being? From Freud’s era to the present day, people have pondered this question and developed theories to answer it. And while theories abound, the question continues to persist for more than a hundred years now. Depending on one’s particular sensibilities, some theories help illuminate the process and provide a practitioner with a road map to follow (especially when lost in the process). However, no theory seems in my experience to answer the question fully: there is still the mysterious process that happens in the best of therapies.

Over the years, my clients have provided me with the best instruction into the therapeutic process and with the best insight into the question of what heals. The purpose of this blog is to initiate a discussion on just that question. I will post my thoughts, based particularly on what I have learned and am leaning from clients, and invite others to offer their experiences and thoughts.


I’d like to begin at the beginning. That is, I’d like to offer thoughts based on my early formal education and work with clients. I had the very good fortune to attend a school, and particularly a training program, that did start with and emphasize the fundamentals — particularly the act of listening. There is something intrinsically healing in the experience of being listened to, really listened to closely, by another person. There is something powerful in the act of being witnessed, in sharing one’s life with another. It is an intimate connection. And it is through this experience that we feel less existentially alone, more connected to another living being. While in my early education, I learned theories, mostly what I focused on was this technique of listening deeply. And while there are theories and other techniques that I utilize today in my work with clients, still the act of listening forms the foundation for the work which occurs.

This healing is summarized in the following quotation taken from the teaching of the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (with thanks to Michael Kahn for teaching it). Avalokitesvara is the bodhisattva (an enlightened being who forsakes eternity in order to stay on earth to work for the betterment of all) most widely revered in Buddhism:

We invoke your name Avalokitesvara. We aspire to learn your way of listening in order to help relieve the suffering in the world. You know how to listen in order to understand. We invoke your name in order to practice listening with all our attention and open-heartedness. We will sit and listen without any prejudice. We will sit and listen without judging or reacting. We will sit and listen in order to understand. We will sit and listen so attentively that we will be able to hear what the other person is saying and also what has been left unsaid. We know that just by listening deeply we already alleviate a great deal of pain and suffering in the other person.

There is, of course, more happening in the therapeutic encounter for the client than simply the experience of being listened to. But it is my experience that even in that simple, yet profound act, much healing begins to take place.

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