The spiritual dimension in psychotherapy English traslation of " La dimensione spirituale in psicoterapia" - Article published on "Terapia Familiare n°107, Marzo 2015, pp.15-36."

The spiritual dimension in psychotherapy[1]


Umberta Telfener[2]



“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle.

The other is as though everything is a miracle” A. Einstein


“You are here to enable the divine purpose of the Universe to unfold.

That’s how important you are!” Eckart Tolle


“What is the definition of enlightenment? The end of suffering” Buddha


I was trained as a systemic strategic therapist at the Child Guidance Clinic in Philadelphia in the mid 1970s, involved in the systemic-relational psychotherapy which asks for connection and belonging. In the 1970s I also began reading Castaneda’s writings. Curious about what there is between earth and heaven, about the ethereal dimensions and the rapport between humans and nature, I have made a point, ever since, of visiting shamans around the world. I drew out another aspect of my personality working with migrants and developing a shared dialogue, beyond the constrains imposed by Western psychotherapy. I discovered another facet talking to women, who are able to open their soul and disclose their personal cosmogonies. I was able to get close to them through a reflection upon the dynamics of love, between couples and within individuals.

In this article, I would like to think about the degrees of junction between the inter-related and crucial aspects of living, such as body and psyche, spirit and soul. The title and the contents of this article grew out of this specific objective. I do not intend to present a set of well organized ideas rather I will put forward some suggestions, a personal experience, a story. These are post hoc reflections, after a life spent in clinical and epistemological rigour.  Not coincidentally the path I propose is a point of arrival in my personal journey; it makes sense only after a long time of meticulous and disciplined study and reflection. The idea is to offer frames of mind, actions and ideas that are constantly in evolution and borne out of a feeling that is in the air: a perception of complexity. That is to say, the connection between different aspects of our culture that we are accustomed to perceiving separately. I am  speaking about the link between different aspects of oneself, as well as with people and with our Mother Earth. I will emphasize the need to connect the profession with one’s personal search, a dimension too often left unsaid. I will allude to an awareness of the wisdom of the Universe, and to my attempt to achieve a mindset of interconnectedness, which while driven by emotion, is also based upon my curriculum and the many experiences along my own spiritual path. Each person can embark upon this journey, more or less voluntarily and become aware of its intimate, private and unique flavour. For someone it is just sporadic experiences, for others it becomes a search for  an essential framework for their own lives. For me it continues to be a life work.

I profoundly respect the power of words and I do believe that once expressed, a new reality is created, which will never just be any more in the background.  The link between psychotherapy and the spiritual dimension has existed for a long time: Jung’s process of identification is a true initiation experience and Jungian theory deals with the soul and with the spiritual dimension. During the 1960’s, Alan Watts – in a book that was a cornerstone – investigated the functioning of the Ego and the roads developed in the East and the West to set it free: in one case through the union with the Cosmos and in another through psychotherapy, which is faithful to the illusion of separateness. Some years later, Suzuki – well known representative of Zen Buddhism – and Erich Fromm, the great psychologist, collaborated on a text together; during the same period, Guru Ram Dass was invited at the Menninger Institute (Kansas, U.S.A.) – a temple of psychoanalytic and psychiatric research – with the aim of exploring the interconnections between the psychic and spiritual domains. These same connections are still and currently proposed by transpersonal and phenomenological psychology, while ethno-psychiatry just suggests them. Mindfulness, very popular among cognitive psychotherapists, is perhaps a Westernalization of the same concept. Cognitive therapists talk about an effortless mindful experience that is inspired by Buddhism and can be defined as a way of “facing the bare facts of experience, seeing each event as though occurring for the first time” (Goleman 1998), “maintaining an awareness of the present reality” (Hanh 1991) and “paying attention to what is here and now without being judgmental, focusing on the purpose” (Kabat-Zinn 1994). I prefer to focus on mindfulness as a unitary thought, like my colleague Restori (2010), who writes,: “Awareness is an experience generated from a non-dual dimension, where body and soul, individual and environment cannot be separated. Awareness means feeling this interconnection. Being aware implies being in a relation, or better, being the relation with everything that one can feel, through the breath of emotions.”

From a systemic perspective, talking about a spiritual dimension is neither a new nor an uncommon action. Bateson (1972) already proposed this connection with his hypothesis that the Sacred can emerge from the complementary union of meanings and positioning.  He was the first systemic thinker to introduce us to the realm of the sacred without ever saying explicitly what this was.  His daughter Mary Catherine (1987) speaks about areas where angels usually live and where the fools are afraid to enter and other areas where also the angels fear to thread. The “unstable” ingredients that, according to the two Bateson, allow us to reach a respectful, humble and sacred attitude are: 1. a refusal of the Cartesian dualism, 2. attention to relations and communication, 3. the sacral gaze and the consequent sacredness attributed to the organization of our biological world, 4. the connection between aesthetics and ethics, 5. the union of mind and nature, 6. metaphor as the logic by which the world was build.

The desire for connection continues.

Even though our primary responsibility is the psychic, I don’t think psychotherapists can afford to ignore the spiritual domain anymore. This need for the spiritual dimension was highlighted in my encounter with migrants and their thirst for the super-natural, and confirmed by several foreign colleagues who, in this particular historical moment, seem more attentive to the evolution of the living practice and  are more considerate of the pursuit of harmony, peace and spirituality.

Traditionally “the spirit” was forbidden to the believers; it was considered an heretical step if not mediated by the church itself and only in recent years it seems it has returned to a sort of free-zone.

Gurdjieff (1960), wise man and guru who dedicated his own life to the achievement of the Sacred, invents the kundabuffer – an organ that has been transplanted by the archangels in our bodies in order to keep our awareness asleep – which makes us live with our feet firmly on the ground and keeps us from waking up from a purely biological state. Various errors usually feed this organ: A. lying to oneself and to others, B. repressing ones’ feelings, C. identifying oneself in a role, D. projecting upon others our moods and our fears. All actions that we risk to perform daily and that keep us switched off.

It is interesting to note Eister and Montuori’s (2003) two different models for living in and reading the world, in other words, how to  set one’s mind. These models structure every sphere of life. The first is ruled by beliefs, structure and hierarchical relations, the other one is lead by sharing. In the first model the human is separated from the rest of the world and spirituality is only a consequence of an abstraction: you isolate yourself, you go to the temple, you create a special space into which you  introduce the sacredness. Coherently with the model of sharing, the second model is not only transcendent but also immanent, based on everyday care, on empathy and connectedness. These following sentiments – feeling respect, gratitude and non violence – are embedded in every action, in every moment, they are embodied in daily life and oblige us to pay attention to multiplicity and to process. Spirituality  therefore is not something separate or isolated nor does it separate us from others; it’s not even an intra-psychic phenomenon that produces individual change. Rather it becomes an embodied social process which influences our relationship with everything, making possible a truly relational way of life.

Access to the Sacred is not immediate nor does it happen intentionally, it occurs “naturally”. We can undertake a path that allows us to improve our capacity to perceive and we can begin a journey in order to learn to read the Sacred throughout and in every which way. The two authors offer four means by which to increase our spiritual potential: 1. Improving our ability to pay attention to our inner wisdom; 2. Becoming totally aware of others, of what happens around us, in order to trigger an active engagement with the rest of the world; 3. Using empathy, care, attention, and a sense of responsibility towards ourselves and others; 4. Learning and acting in a participative manner.

As psychotherapists, we look after the mind, the emotional sphere and inevitably also the physical one. I dare to use the word “spiritual” in this text and add it as a dimension to the clinical relationship. I have had a taste of the knowledge of connection to which more and more humans have access. This implies a refusal of separateness in favour of a union with the macro-cosmos, with universal love. It implies an awareness that  all the energy of the Universe may be found in all that exists; a desire to explore the mysteries of life and the significance of being human; the capacity to open oneself to an unconditional love towards everything that exists and therefore existence itself. I know that reaching for spiritual awareness is a journey made up of steps that make us more and more aware. I have practiced finding the unseen in every gesture, trying to reconnect the threads of traditions and finding the connection between past and future, living the smallest as if it were a fractal of the macro. Because the visible and the invisible affect each other, because it is this very necessity for connection and purpose that justifies the possibility of introducing the spiritual dimension into psychotherapy. “Everything is in everything” asserts the physics Henri Bortoft, appreciating the wonder of the world.

Time, space, dynasty; wind, shadow, tree, butterfly; ying-yang vs. spiritus-animus-anima (Taoism); vitality, breath, pulsation, gaze (Hindu tradition); intellect, soul, mind, heart, numinosity, spirit (the layers that God blesses in in XVI psalm of the Talmud); body, soul/thymos, soul/psyche, mind/nous, spirit/pneuma/logos, genius/daimon, intellect/gnosis (greco-roman culture); body, soul, reason are some of the distinction that we use more often nowadays. Topographies of the human being are diversified but according to Zolla (1989) they can overlap. Talking about the Sacred implies a necessary distinction between soul (Great Id, antenna) and spirituality. The soul is a  system of relations, a part of ourselves that we can only glimpse; that which remains of ourselves when we get rid of the earthly affairs; a vast area to which we have access when we fall in love. Once, an “illuminated” friend told me:

“You are in your soul when you transform your life into a work of art. Initiates and artists are into their soul. It is a timeless entity in which everything is present. Love and acceptance are the ground structures of spirituality. By living, we have to enter another timeless dimension, the spiritual one: renouncing what I am in order to become what I want to be. Because the process of individuation is never ending. The interconnection between body, soul and spirit is the same as the one between  Saturn (the body), the moon (the soul) and the Sun (the spirit) in our cosmogony …”

Maybe we need to learn how to connect the individual soul with the soul of the world.

Talking about the Sacred necessarily implies an interruption of that “spiritual desertification of the modern historical subject” (Zolla 1989).  It implies gathering principles of wholeness without drifting into religion, without putting God on the table, as if we knew what we are talking about. But where  do we find the Sacred? In 2010, my colleague Bianciardi wrote:

“I believe that both in human relationships and in psychotherapy it is possible to experience rare moments in which it seems we could meet the other in a “sacred” place. We are meeting him/her when something unsaid is put into words. Certainly, this also applies to an encounter with ourselves. Upon a close inspection, I believe it is more precisely the place where the mysterious link between content and context emerges; there where individuality comes forward,  becoming the subject of a story that comes out of (draws upon, feeds itself with, is subdued by) the other’s narrative and begins to participate in an autonomous way to weave the same relational context from which it tries to distinguish itself. I suggest therefore, that the encounter with the other should be experienced as sacred when what is said (sometimes for the very first time) allows an elaboration of that which was overlapped and confused, to be perceived as a hypothesis, as an interpretation of what was before perceived as unique reality.”

What we are all trying to get at is a moment of communion, an amplified sense of awareness and an overall heightened feeling, very well described by Senge and colleagues (2004). From time to time I have felt moved in a psychotherapy session, felt touched by a feeling of sacredness for what had occurred: together we had reached a new gestalt, a picture that proposed a very different point of view, never before investigated. I agree with Kenny (1998) when he says:

“Also by consciously entering the domain where our comprehension gets destroyed, we need to overcome our own invented knowledge, determining a slipping in order to push ourselves beyond the “limitations of language”, questioning the limits applied to our actions and those established in finding meanings. We need to enter the domain where our comprehension fades away. The will to undertake this impossible effort is a manifestation of the presence of the Sacred: that is, the effort of going beyond the prisons of language in order to reach the unknown, the inexpressible, the undeliverable meaning of a fuller mind (Mindfulness)”.

Psychotherapists should always try to push beyond and overcome their clients’ narratives, which too often are saturated, having been repeated and re-elaborated many times. They need to enter into an unknown territory through and within the relationship. More and more often the problems we face stem from tacit and preverbal experiences. We need to enter within an area of possibilities, in the domain ruled by rituals and gestures. Actions and experiences performed together  become gateways that can lead to memories and sensations.

Clinical work permits us to access one form of knowledge of the world and allows us to live the experience on various levels. One level has something to do with the reaction we have produced; another level allows us to open our hearts, beyond words. We need to think vertically and horizontally, overlapping layers from the most concrete to the most abstract, from the most mundane to the most hypothetical. I like to imagine the Universe as a construction site, by definition incomplete. We are the workers. Each of us is the creator of his/her garden which is also the garden of the Universe; we are the gardeners but at the same time the flowers and the bushes. In psychotherapy this hypothesis implies that we do not need to act immediately, we don’t need to understand everything. However it is fundamental  that relations are considered inevitable. We need to accept that we know that we don’t know, be aware of our unavoidable ignorance as well as the inescapable presence of blind zones and collusions (Telfener 2011).

In these pages I am also talking about a professional ethic and an aesthetic attitude, a positioning that I personally feel is useful and profitable. It influences: (1) the clinician’s attitude, (2) the events to which we give our attention, and (3) the spirit that emerges from the common dance. I will now mention a series of steps that I consider necessary even if not sufficient to honour and bring our attention to the spiritual level. I am not proposing to add new procedures, but rather to assume an attitude towards the world, the others and their problems. I believe that this dimension can emerge only if the therapist has explored it personally, since it is mainly our choice as to how concrete the common psychotherapeutic work should be. The level of the initiation and learning of course are determined by one’s own nature and choices, by one’s own life journey.



Comprehending  (to grasp/collect together) what is told

Sometimes, when you sail on the open sea, you see dolphins. If you are lucky, the dolphins may swim along with your boat and play with each other, with the waves and the hull. Sometimes, it will happen that your eyes will cross and in this instance, just like the one with the whales in the Northern sea, you feel connected to the entire Universe. It is as if they knew things we ignore. The astonishment, the peculiarity of the event and the delicate effort on trying to keep them with you, ensures a loss of self awareness so as to concentrate on the common dance. They squeak and play, it seems they are doing it just for the humans, but we also extend ourselves, we emit sounds, welcoming them with love and gratitude. When it happened, I felt the separation between us dissolved. For a moment I felt purely happy.

Sometimes, listening to the “difficult” stories that people bring to me, I feel I am facing something limitless and at the same time very very small. The boundless silence of pain appears to me like a dune in an immense desert and I seek for collective rituals that no longer exist. I believe that I must pay homage to time, respect it, delve into what is the personal past and beyond to a trans-generational one. I query the flow of life that justifies what is presented in the here and now. For this reason I begin by investigating individual and family history and, if the situation doesn’t evolve, I look to past generations. Inquiring about past generations is the same as reflecting on the single mind here and now, both are fractals of an organizational whole, both offer a similar and repetitive design of what is happening. I  also have to bring the future into the present in order to find out what this person wants for himself[3] and from us, what he is learning from the crisis “here and now”. If suffering is a way to gain a major coherence of the self, what message should the client accept and recognize?

Antonia enters therapy desperate. Her partner has left her again and again and she  is obsessively concerned with having been abandoned. She recalls every interaction of the last several months, she analyses every detail and she asks herself why. It is impossible to answer. I feel sorry for her pain. I feel the urgency of trying to stop it, without disqualifying nor denying it. I ask myself how much the topic of abandonment resounds in her family history, how much is her obsession related to the man and how much is related to the fear of being left alone, how much might it be related to a sense of defeat with respect to a tough challenge in her difficult working life. Who is she obsessed with: with him? With herself? With her charmer of a mother who has always had parallel affairs in her marriage? With her boss who humiliates her? And what does being abandoned means to me, how do I react to it, how did I manage it in my own life?

Com-prehension[4] means accepting, taking on together with the other that which is brought by the “heart of the mind”. Feeling a sense of sacredness in the encounter with the other can underline that rare and magic moment (a moment one can never consciously look for) in which for an instant we feel both as one. Bianciardi (2010) thinks it is a moment in which we feel together and at the same time distinct, present and jet not enmeshed.

To comprehend means also taking into consideration the generative process. As Varela writes (in Varela, Thompson, Rosh, 1991), “Shifting our attention towards the origin rather than the object”. Questioning about what keeps people where they are, which assumptions and relationships reinforce the problems brought to our attention, asking what do these problems  signify and which adaptive or evolutionary role do they play. It also mean “to let go”, to let what is already happening happen, going beyond the duality between subject and object, in order to live the present without being judgmental.

This is not just a matter of understanding intellectually or even emotionally. It is not about “fighting” against symptoms but rather under-standing them and giving people the time to absorb what we have elaborated/ redefined/deconstructed/hypothesized together. Intuition, the ability to vibrate together, to make connections and to integrate the experiences of others with our own, gives us the opportunity to access collective symbols, private narratives, shared listening. All of these common actions go along with the emotional and intellectual comprehension of what is happening. To comprehend means hypothesizing, making assumption about the role of all the subjects involved in the creation and maintenance of the pain. It means asking oneself how the mind, the relationships and our own participation to this semantic dance create/maintain/infect the problems and the process. Our belief system creates our reality: which projections do not allow an evolution? In which ways are culture, habits, prejudices, beliefs, driving us to undermine the possible evolution of the process, thus to lose togetherness and lightness? We create blocks in our awareness, which prevent us from moving on. They are repetitive patterns that lead us to a never ending circle.  Learning to let go is useful, at times indispensable. The only way to influence the external is to understand how one’s mind and heart collude with what is happening. The wise say: “Change your mind and the world will change”. In order to change the external is crucial to start questioning  our beliefs, to transcend  the rational mind and render it our servant rather than our dictator. Ram Dass says: “Fear is only the result of impure thoughts that define us as separate from the rest of the Universe”.

The moves I wish to list as part of understanding, of comprehending are: (1) open one’s heart and feel involved; (2) see from the inside; (3) hypothesize and grab hold of the purpose of what should happen; (4) connect as co-participants in a holistic reality that binds us together; (5) make the future present; (6) become one with the situation. In sum, create a climate of non judgmental listening


Accepting multi-dimensionality and union with the whole

I went to the Amazon forest of Peru in order to meet with the shamans. I walked for a long time to reach an Eco sustainable village in the middle of nowhere. I walked among trees that were so tall that they couldn’t make a shade and I caught myself surprised by the sounds of the forest: trees and branches falling, birds and other animals’ noises extremely amplified by these long corridors of vegetation. At the very beginning I felt as if the rainforest was divided into layers, just like a cake: each layer a different ingredient. One layer was filled with birds, fronds and leaves, another with beetles and flowers, another had humans and shacks, some with loud TVs blearing, and still another with the soil, the ants, the insects and finally a layer inhabited  by what we could not see: roots underground, snakes and other hidden animals. For a moment I felt a part of Everything. It has been a moment of deep peace and my mind was purely free from boundaries and constrictions, just as if there was no more I/Ego. As soon as I tried voluntarily to prolong this feeling, it disappeared.

Accepting the multidimensionality of the Universe means giving value to the knowledge of complexity, taking into consideration the system we belong to, that we are part of. It means accepting and understanding that the common “game” that includes us, is bigger than us. It is a matter of going from the Everything to the particular and vice versa, to become active parts of what could happen instead of passive observers, ruled by pre-established maps. To respect multiplicity on this Earth implies a change in our focus. We must look beyond the surface and approach a state of mindfulness, a non judgmental awareness of the connection between events. We need to experiment the world not as something given a priori but to consider the underlying process of what we perceive: the world is made manifest through us. “Seeing a wider pattern allows people to feel deeply connected and makes them powerful. This inner knowledge comes from the heart” says Otto Schermer (Senge 2004). In therapy it means going beyond the usual script in order to see a larger design that refers to more generations, different stories, multiple descriptions and the possibility of rendering the future present and living in the here and now. It also means going “beyond” the individual, giving clients a chance to feel part of a family, a group, a community, a culture, part of human becomings[5], of nature, of the Universe. Because being alive is being part of a vast combination of relationships, it means accessing different time dimensions, respecting the interwoven complexity and welcoming the client into the comprehension we have of the world. I personally believe that a bi-dimensional therapist is not able to accompany her clients into a dimension that is denser than the one she inhabits.


Promoting the transformation of the therapist

In 1992, I was in Buriazia to attend the first pilgrimage of the Mongolian and Buriat Shamans on the holy island of the lake Baikal, where it is said the first Shaman was born. We were many and in that occasion we felt like citizens of the world. Each one of us had brought his or her personal expectations and a strong desire to be part of a collective moment. It was very cold even though it was June. The lighting of the fire – around which we used to sing and gather – became a fundamental and dayly ritual. Shamans at the head of the collective rituals were asking us to bring out our intentions and to visualize a way to fulfil them, to figure out the necessary steps to go home “changed”. Despite their culture being so very different than ours, they were able anyway – through small gestures – to overturn the scripts we had brought with us and stimulate new opportunities and new points of view. The task was every day to rebuild the harmony of what we had lived and of what we shared with them and among ourselves, almost never using verbal language. I went back home deeply changed, having made important life decisions.


As clinicians we are prone to reflect about health and disease, about life and death, about birth. We are not explicitly taught how to tune into the laws of Nature, how to perceive our participation in the Cosmos. Considering oneself a part of the process becomes essential, as is being able to trust the connection between heart and mind (our personal vision of the world) in order to bring the other to the level of awareness that we have already reached. We tend to leave the spiritual dimension to the personal sphere, when instead in psychotherapy it is easy to realize that what we have to offer is ourselves and our attitude towards life: our awareness, our capacity to use an abductive way of thinking[6], to give up the bonds of causal and reductive explanations. This attitude is fourfold. For one it is about facilitating the “us”, abandoning the idea that we act on someone else in order to carry out the meeting ; at the same time it means working on ourselves to overcome our own prejudices and increase our levels of freedom. It also implies to accept the social responsibility we’ve been given and monitoring the process in order to make something significant happen. Be curious is the fourth operation: complexity demands a shared investment, not to solve problems but to redefine them together. Curiosity means also lightness, irreverence, attention to what is happening, a capacity not to fall into the trap of symptoms, into the seriousness of the situation, into the mind as a priori. There are no victims nor executioners and if I dwell only on the sickness it is only because I cannot see in an integrated manner, because I am seeking for homogeneity where there are only differences.

It is necessary and inevitable that also the professional be willing to call herself into question. She may be more or less transformed by the stories she listen to, according to her own attitudes and her disposition to beeing perturbed. There are epistemological differences in the attitude towards the process: there are those who consider it a technical path geared to change and those who deem it a dialogical experiential pathway oriented to the an opening of shared possibilities. For this reason, choosing the second option, I prefer to talk about evolution instead of change and I am also interested in marginal themes, where chatting about issues that are on the periphery of the psychological work can be fundamental.

I work with R. I try to help him move beyond medication, to create barriers between him and his father who criticizes and calls him a “helpless psychotic”. After a period in which R. feels better, is more active and starts to have a social life, he begins having trouble sleeping, he connects ideas erratically and he seems restless. How scary, how worrying! I fall into the same fear he and his parents have. The morning I have to meet with him and his family because they consider him in a maniacal state, I wake up at dawn  and try to stop my thoughts. I voluntarily force myself to imagine him better and I push myself farther: I imagine he could keep a job and find his balance. If our though are connected into a common matrix, I better not fall into the trap of worrying about his downfall.  I have to offer to both of us the chance of a subtext, of a shared mind not polluted by fear. I can do it, if I work on it I will succeed. He is not able to do it right now.

Some operations are more useful than others:

Being here and now means to flirt with the ideas that come but do not marry them ever (Cecchin 1991); implies being aware of the emotions and sensations that emerge and choosing how to use them rather than being organized by them. It means to honour what is happening in the here and now of the relationship, making incursions into the past and the future in order to illuminate the present. It means understanding your own role in regulating/ producing/ correcting/ maintaining the system and interacting with the other professional involved in the narratives; it also implies an awareness of the unavoidable possibility to collude. It means listening deeply. It means, finally, letting go of the well-known in order to explore uncharted territories in order to let something new to take place.

Suspending judgment is something to be learned. Francisco Varela talks about the “capacity to escape the usual flow of thoughts” and he considers it the first step to increased awareness. It is not a matter of creating a taboula rasa, to through away every model but rather to gain an epistemic awareness that allows us to trace the premises which organize our perception. It’s a matter of facing our premises and thus be able also to act. It is a matter of seeing our outlook, considering that judging voice shaped by our own culture and habits, not falling into the blaming and controlling modality. It is not to jump to conclusions, but trust the process and build a multiverse of possible complementary hypothesis. It is important to enhance the capacity to see things as if they are happening for the very first time, without falling into the same old automatic paths, traced over and over again. Every session should stand on its’ own, every problem as if it were different: to search for the integrity of the system,  that includes us.

Waiting means not acting immediately; honour time, allow stimuli that may not be the determining factors to come to light. Knowing how to look attentively  without having to intervene allows the process to happen and to flow. I am suggesting to leave behind the mentality of the problem solver, overcome the dualistic vision of doctor and patient, of seeing the problem separated from the person. I have myself had to learn to “listen to the silence” and not to fill the empty spaces with understanding.

Allowing vulnerability means accepting not knowing (inter alia Telfener 2011. 2014) and allowing oneself not to need answers, being able to remain silent. Further, it means to tune in to the other’s pain, feeling and understanding together, while perturbing by making connections and assumptions. I have been moved to tears in a session, I allowed it to happen but I also moved on to construct some hypothesis that could give meaning to the sufferance.

Learning from others means being available to learn, to consider oneself in a constant process of evolution, in continuous expansion and contraction. Each person who comes asking for help teaches us something about ourselves and about life. The work consists in understanding that part of ourselves that is mirrored through somebody else and to integrate it.  This process allows us to give back to the client a vision of the process of living.


Trusting the other
In Rome I used to live in front of the apartment of the famous conceptual artist Cy Twombly. His canvas are worth millions of dollars and are home to the walls of major contemporary art museums. The painter used to go up and down along his studio, usually in his underpants, with a piece of chalk in his hands behind the back. I was writing my dissertation, stuck at my desk, and he was going up and down for hours. Sometimes he would make a sign on the gigantic canvas hanging on the wall, then he would start walking again, totally absorbed . There seemed to be a relationship between the signs he left on the canvas and who he was, his history, his vision of what was emerging from his canvas, to which he was connected through his thinking/feeling/scribbling. His actions were spontaneous, he didn’t seem to have a pre-conceived notion of the result. He seemed driven by an inner motion which was giving sense to what was emerging. He seemed all one with his painting. I was fascinated.
I believe the aim of our work is the well being of the individuals with whom we are working so as to access to a dimension of collective well being. However there is no such thing as a single person alone. The aim becomes the common well-being, harmony between people and generosity towards oneself and others. I believe that I belong to a universal family that is interested in peace, and will be capable, in time, to achieve it. My values are trust, healing and harmony. I often ask to my clients what are theirs. What do they aspire to? What is it that is keeping them going? What would they want their lives to include? The drive for change emerges from the affirmation of self which originates from the renewed capacity to feel empathy, connection and gratitude. The inclination to change is also related to how each person dancing sees her/himself through the eyes of the others and the capacity to acknowledge ones’ own resources. Therapy is the occasion created when two or more people meet and, thorough the reciprocal knowledge, build a shared energy that becomes “sacred”.

Trust in the human becoming and in his capacities to evolve is one of the indispensable assumptions for a clinician. I believe that whenever we cannot consider the positive evolution of a specific problematic situation, we become part of its defeat by maintaining the status quo.

Buying into a negative judgment and believing in the severity of a presenting problem is not the best strategy towards evolution. The risk is one of becoming enmeshed in the other’s pain. At times, we end up believing that this pain is unavoidable, thus we participate in the creation of chronicity, anchored in the sickness instead of opening to well being scenarios. Activating regenerative and self- healing forces means instead not falling into the trap of symptoms and not blocking oneself at the level of comprehension proposed by the client, but rather to access our intuitive wisdom in order to offer to others our level of connection with the generative energy and attaining an evolutionary process. This also means creating a secure environment in which we can explore different alternative hypothesis about what is happening. Whatever problem is presented we must not to be overly frightened. We can use what Zolla said: “Humans are taken away by their biographies (while) our experience of the world is a function of how we conceive it and we are free to conceive it as we wish.” (1981).

A pleasant and curious manner when meeting a client is very different than a merely dutiful attitude when we think “I have to see the client at all costs”. We should be able to tell personal anecdotes, demonstrate respect and consideration and feel the pleasure of the common dance.



Going “naturally” towards what you want to achieve

I went in various countries of the world to get my future read through coca leaves, shells, tea leaves, coffee grounds, stones, bones, coins, sticks, even coloured plastic buttons (!). Each time, the procedure has seemed to be an attempt to harmonize what was already happening in my life with new information. None of the narratives has been completely foreign, I have always been considered part of a larger ecosystem, constantly flowing. Often I have been confirmed: my wishes were on road, on the way to be fulfilled. The same happens in psychotherapy, when I tell a lonely woman that if she emotionally divorces from her ex-husband she can finally be courted, it becomes more probable that – while looking around – she can draw on herself the attention of others.
I declare myself a constructivist. This means that I believe I take part in  the construction of that which emerges in my world. If, for instance, I don’t feel loved enough by my partner, the outcome will be entirely different if I look for perpetual confirmation as opposed to trying to live joyful and intense days together.  The outcome will be completely different. The same thing happens with our clients. Being focused on the disease and the symptoms or on recovery, we yield to different outcomes. The same happens if we let go of the thoughts of negativity ore we stick to them; if we think about a conversation as a flux or rather as a picture of the actual happening; if we get scared as opposed to considering each behaviour as a an event that will allow our clients to live more intensely the mystery of their lives. Renouncing the conscious aim does not mean believing you are not manipulating (this is impossible) nor does it mean settling for controlling everything (equally impossible and hurtful).

I believe that forgiveness of ourselves and others has not been sufficiently appreciated and valued as a therapeutic practice.   

Sebastiano is a successful fifty-years-old man, torn between two women. Each one accuses him of being stingy with himself, of being unable to take care of them. On the contrary, he is convinced he is doing his best. To me he seems a man running away from his self: he is always busy, he is not able to manage any request, he never misses any opportunity, he constantly excuses himself with both women, with his children. He feels at fault, yet without ever changing his life style.  He tells me about his childhood: a very distracted mother and a selfish father. He has always been in between their fights and had to take care of them as if he was his own grandfather. I share Sebastiano’s  fatigue, his feeling  of always being invisible to others,  and I ask him to spend a week concentrating on himself, on his needs and wishes. Sebastiano is moved, he is convinced he is guilty because of his bigamy, because his children and the women constantly accuse him of being selfish. I do not see him as a selfish man; I see a child busy in living his life, who has a deep fear of being disqualified and of suffering. This is why he works so hard. A man, all mind, very willing, ambitious, capable, a workaholic, full of success, but without room for an emotional connection with himself.


Allowing the right side of the brain to participate in the sessions

In Yayeme, a village in Senegal, in 1994, I visited a saltigué – an old man who was able to see and answer questions about the future and about health. I spoke to him, thanks to a translator, about a person who was not eating. “Why is this person not eating? Isn’t there enough food?” he asked me alarmed. Of course there was enough food. How could I explain to an old African man a Western obsession? The wise man immediately  realized that the problem was beyond his rational comprehension and he proposed a very elaborated ritual. I had to find an anthill and collect the soil that the ants dig up and leave around the entrance hole. I carried out his instructions precisely and performed the ritual, binging up many connections in the process, and went home with this soil. Was it pure coincidence that when I returned to Rome, my “protégée’s” problem was on its way to being overcome?

Usually perception is linear. There is however another level of awareness where perception becomes holographic, in which things are not considered in time and there is the possibility of escaping the Ego and strict causality. Shamans call it “the loving dimension”, made up of awareness, energy and the capacity of accessing the inner space of the Self which is love and awareness of the entire Universe. An abductive way of thinking favours this dimension. One starts by no longer wanting to understand and letting oneself be transported by associations, transversal thoughts and by one’s own fantasies regarding ongoing relations. The idea is that one’s attention is free to wonder and perceive different shades and particulars.

Marta and I are engaged in an intensive work. She is a single woman who has worked very hard to find her stability. She has occasional jobs and sporadic love affairs; she talks about an inner world made of loneliness and fantasy images that vividly arise in her mind.  I make her talk with every “voice” within herself that participates in her daily life in order to understand the meaning of her visions, which I choose not to call “hallucinations”. From a holistic perspective, I believe there are “doors” that open onto other dimensions of her awareness, which are sometimes full of light and at other times allude to loneliness and self destruction. I ask her inner voices to tell us their function in Marta’s life and into her evolutionary path.  What we discover is that Marta is ruled by her childhood experiences during which she played a crucial role in taking care of a borderline mother and a younger sister, both under her emotional charge from the time she was five years old. These have determined Marta’s every choice ever after and equally her  deep fears of commitment, duty and responsibility.


Favouring ritualization

The All blacks, rugby World Champions, have developed a ritual to become one with the game and to intimidate the adversaries. It is a dance that is always the same, rhythmic, accompanied by gestures and belligerent expressions. My guess is that they fall into a trance while practicing it, to touch in a sense the energy of their past victories and of the winning strategies they had reached together. They build one collective mind that arises from the utterly same and repetitive actions and  the image they receive back from the observers.

When you attend a family constellation, the facilitator at the beginning, establishes a ritual in order to create a sort of cybernetic brain able to stimulate a morphogenetic field (Sheldrake 20xx) in which a common feeling emerges. In this way it is possible to synchronize to other people’s scripts and all work together.

For the majority of individuals, the symptom is often a benchmark between before and after. We can imagine it as a chance to stop and interrupt a mechanical life and try to deeply understand the roots of our functioning. Just as with the spiritual path that lies between the before and after you experience a sort of symbolic death, so also in psychotherapy one must often sacrifice the old identity in order to reach a more complex one. Ceremonies and rituals help this process, as long as they come from the heart and are not techniques imposed from above. We can imagine the psychotherapeutic process as a path in which all together we recuperate the information that is needed in order to integrate it into a new coherence. Sparks of capta[7], organized within a frame built “with love” and sharing, through an exchange of gifts (Kinman 2000).


Conclusions: an unavoidable ethical attitude

When I was in Buriazia in the 1990’s, the shamans taught us to honour Nature. If you took a stone, a flower, a shell you had to pay homage to Mother Earth with a though of gratitude and leave something in return: a coin, an intention, a thank you. It is a way to honour the spirit of each thing, to feel part of the Everything.

I have flowers in my studio, a lighted candle, a small apparatus that builds rainbows and every morning, when I step in, I always tidy the room up, so that it becomes a pleasant place for myself and the people I will meet. I do not consider it any old room but rather a sacred corner where people give me the honour to come and tell me their problems. Where together we reflect upon their feelings and what to do. As my friend and colleague  Alfredo Ancora told me once, the Mongolian Shaman we worked with in Buriazia once asked him: “Do you ever pray before working?”.  Alfredo asserts it took him many years to find an answer!

Health is based on interior harmony, on belonging and implies the possibility to be in contact with one’s own loving Self. It is based as well on trust in life and the sensation of having a place on Earth. The concept of health involves all the levels of being: mental, emotional, physical, psychic, spiritual and ecological. Working in therapy we are attentively present, we participate by acting with respect and we focus on resources, those of the people we work with and ours. We centre on the procedural aspects of the shared context.  As systemic therapists we create evolutionary relationships based on a sense of curiosity, non judgment and union. I am not speaking only about a participative and attentive attitude towards the diverse dimensions of clinical procedures (use of language, choice of positioning, spotting of possible collusions with the dominant culture and the context, to cite the most important), but rather about the possibility of considering psychotherapy an “ethical” practice rather than a “medical” or “scientific” one (Bianciardi 2012). Psychotherapy is concerned with the integrity and uniqueness of the subjective experience; it deals with the subjectivity of each individual, which is unique in its complexity. The psychotherapist must assume full responsibility not only for the correct application of her own method and the relative techniques, the psychotherapist needs also to assume responsibility as a person and become personally responsible for what happens within the encounter, with the others and for the outcome of the meeting (Bianciardi 2012). The ethical stance guarantees respect for the complexity, the involvement, the wonder and the multi dimensionality of each encounter. An ethical attitude constitutes a “strada maestra”, the high street or principal avenue leading to the Sacred.

What I have said here about the Sacred may or may not be received, carried further by  all who read this discourse. I am aware of how incomplete it is. Each of you will have to assimilate and transform what I have said, and find his or her own independent way. I would like to conclude with a greeting the Indians use when they meet: NA MA STA, I honour the light within you.




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[1] I would like to thank Emanuele Mocarelli, friend and teacher. With his course on The Tree of Life and his friendship he has allowed me to deepen my path and train my consciousness. I am grateful  for his making  me understand how the Divine

Comedy, the Song of Songs, the Bible and many other works are initiatory books. I thank Alfredo Ancora, trans-cultural psychiatrist  and travel companion, who  encouraged me to  dare in this article.

[2] Systemic therapist, teacher of the Milan school of family Therapy

[3] I now arbitrarily decide to render the clinician/professional a “she” and clients  masculine. It is my choice in order not to repeat  s/he all the time.

[4] Com-prehend (comprendere in italian, cum-prendere, to take together), the English under-standing, and the German Ver-stehen (not staying) are three different ways of talking about comprehension. They assume different cultural positioning

for the same action.

[5] To call humans “becoming” is the suggestion of the philosopher Martin Buber in order to underline the evolutive

process we are inevitably involved in, from birth to death.

[6] An abductive way of thinking is the one preferred by Bateson. It calls for abandoning a strict logical mode

in order to follow the flow and think in a relational associative way.

[7] “Capta” is the word Ronald Laig () suggests using instead of “data” since information is not something that we find

and is given to us but something that emerges from an active work of choosing and selecting.

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  • Joanna Bown

    August 16, 2016 at 7:50 pm

    I am very interested in meeting with Umberta Telfener to discuss therapy sessions - I live in Milano, Italy, I am learning to speak italian, […] Read MoreI am very interested in meeting with Umberta Telfener to discuss therapy sessions - I live in Milano, Italy, I am learning to speak italian, I am an intuitive and an executive coach, I would love to order Umberta's book in english (Gli Amori Briciola), but see that it is only available in italian - thus I would very much like to find out if I can make an appointment to meet with her instead, since I cannot yet read the full book in italian, or if the book is available anywhere in english? The book really applies to what is happening to me in my life at this moment. My tel is +39 340 267 3618, I look forward to hearing from you how best for me to connect with Umberta in english, please. I am happy to come to Rome from Milan for an appointment, thank you, Joanna Bown Read Less

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