Beyond all the theories, approaches, interventions, and strategies, for me therapeutic companionship is a process of bearing witness to the life of another as they come to befriend themselves in a way that was not possible until now. To excavate meaning where there was none, to find purpose in the core of the purposelessness, to somehow bear that which has previously been unbearable.
Interestingly, if we look at the etymology of the word “psychotherapy,” “psyche” in Greek referred to “soul” or “breath.” Therapeuin derives from the idea of caring for, accompanying, or tending to. So engaging in psychotherapy, in this sense – an outrageous act ultimately open to anyone with a human heart – is to tend to the soul or even care for the breath, the life force, the essence. A friend of the soul. A friend of the breath.
This befriending is not ordinary or passive, not always flowing and peaceful. It is fierce, on fire, and an act of revolution. It is the light shining out of the core of the dark night, the outrageousness of the human spirit, and the basic goodness of the human heart. It is standing on the rooftop and declaring that pain is not pathology, grief is not pathology, despair is not pathology, confusion is not pathology, that heartbreak is not pathology. Rather, that they are path.
At times, each of us will be invited to walk into the dark wood with another, into the disorienting and hopeless places, without knowing where the journey will lead, if we will make it out in one piece, or where new life will be found. We will be asked to make sense together of where they have been, who they see themselves to be, and what they are longing to become. To illuminate what matters most to them and cradle it in our shared heart. To help them gather the pieces of the broken world.
To proclaim their experience as valid, that their feelings are intelligent, that their vulnerability is whole, and that they are worthy of our care and presence as they are. That even if their pain constellates that which is unresolved within us, that we will remain close, and not place the burden of our unlived lives upon them. That despite the pain of the present, the traumas of the past, and the fragmented dreams of the future we will dare to reclaim the aspects, parts, and pieces of the soul that have been turned from, now longing to return home. That we will participate in the sacred assembly that is gathering before our very eyes, an assembly of the shattered. And open to the creativity of the light as it appears at times in darkened, disguised forms.
We will assert together that pain is not evidence that they have “failed,” that something is fundamnetally “wrong” with them, or that they must first be “cured” in order for us to stay near. Rather, we will affirm that their suffering is authentic, that their hopelessness is well-founded, that it is honorable, that it is integral to the unfolding of their unique journey. That they are not a project to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.
And then, from that foundation of companionship and bearing witness to the sacredness of what a human being truly is—including the profound grief, despair, and moments of great joy—we are able to turn together into the unknown and bow before its immensity. In awe at the mystery, together.
It is awesome, in the truest sense of the word, to bear witness in this way. To fall to the ground in the beholding of the divine in action, of the unstoppable wild bravery of the human spirit, and the relentlessness and creativity of love as it makes its way into form.
It is easy and very natural at times to deflate as we look around at the tragedy of what happens when we forget, when we lose touch with what matters most, and fall into trance. But in any moment, no matter what is disintegrating around us, we can remember, we can open again, be a friend of the breath, and pray for whatever wisdom and skillful means are available here to help others. We can start wherever we are, right now, in this moment. In this holy moment. Together, we can encode new circuitry into a world that has understandably grown a bit weary.
Photo credit: James Estrin/ New York Times