The problematic paradox of talk therapy

by leona on December 19, 2008

j0437247 In my last post I talked about how some feelings solidify our sense of self and how we get caught up in both the feelings and the story we tell ourselves about them. When we “identify” with our problems we, again, solidify, our sense of self.

Suffering, feelings of discomfort, pain, anxiety, worry, are really nothing more than a disconnect between reality and what we want reality to be. It is the gap between what actually is, and what we think should be.  Our expectations of reality are, in fact, our habitual patterns of thinking, our belief systems about ourselves and these, consequently, influence how we relate to experience. 

So to work with suffering, to prevent suffering before it has a chance to occur, we need to dive right into the space between reality and our expectations of reality.

So, this alerts me to the paradox of “talk therapy”. We go to a therapist to work on a an issue we perceive as a  problem in our lives. More often than not we talk about how it feels, what happens and then comes the “why” of it. We dig around in our memories, dig around in the past to try and work our why we do what we do. We can do this from many perspectives: Freudian, Jungian, Gestalt (perspectives within perspectives) and so on. Most of our approaches to our psychological symptoms are based on the assumption that if you go back into the past, somewhere in your personal memory, you will be able to find the root of your present problem. But have we let go of our problem? Have we released the energy it holds in our life? That’s not been my experience. it just becomes more and more about me. I learn to see my patterns, I see how the patterns of others have affected me, I become aware of my thinking and so on.

I like the way Michael Stone, a yoga teacher in Toronto, describes our stories:

Narratives are only ideas. As persons in bodies, we are like threads made up of multiple strands, each thread being a story about our likes and dislikes. Some strands are continuous over long periods of time, others like the short bits of wool that are spun into yarn, achieve the appearance of continuity only when seen from a sufficient distance. Practice of yoga postures and attention to breath, give us the tools to find this distance in order to see the distinction between being in the body and resting in our ideas of the body. The more we let the threads of storytelling dissolve the closer we come to the experience of Life. The closer we are to the heartbeat of existence, the less we need the thread of stories.

Speaking only from my personal experience I have found 2 practices which support my letting go of my stories and the illusion of self: Yoga and Focusing.

Why do they lead to release, lead to letting go? They pay attention to our body. Our body is a storehouse for our experience. It records our every living moment in all of our cells, muscles and even our hormones.

Also, when I pay clear attention to my body I become viscerally aware of impermanence and change, of aging, of where I am more stiff today, where I am holding tension, and of the nature of change moment by moment. Even in a single breath I can sense areas of flow, areas of tightness, areas of anticipation; all reflecting the moment-by-moment state of my bodymind.  If all of this can happen in a single breath then who is this single self? It becomes increasingly evident that what I am clinging to is simply a process, a verb, living in action. Not a noun – a static object.

So, let’s work with the body. Why sit around and talk about how I feel, what my life story is? I am just tracking along the same path. My body, however, can do two critical things. It can show me where I am experiencing stuckness; that is my natural flow of living energy is blocked AND it can tell me what it knows about how to become unstuck and live in my natural flow.

Michael Stone describes scientific underpinnings of stuckness in his yoga journal:

It is said that there are 72,000 nadis in the body. They are an extremely fine network of subtle channels spread throughout the body. Most disease or inflexibility is the result of congestion, blocks or restrictions in the nadi system. The nadis are psychological as well, so when you talk of psychological hindrances, anxieties, neurosis, tendencies or obstacles, we also use the language of the nadis. Psychological knots exist within the nadis in the same way overturned logs or beaver dams interrupt the smooth flow of a river.


I have excerpted some clear descriptions of how yoga can bring release and cut through the illusion of self again from Michael Stone.

All yoga postures are designed to create new patterns of sensation in the body that affect the nervous system and the mind, in such a way that we’re invited to enter into these patterns of sensation as a meditative exercise. But what happens is, the foot behind the head pattern, or the backbend pattern, or the forward bend pattern gives rise to feelings that are uncomfortable, so we do everything we can to stay out of the internal form of the yoga posture, because it challenges the mind.

Our mind is filled with preferences of what feelings you like and what feelings you don’t like. The yoga postures, when done well, are designed to push and pull on you like this. But what they are pushing and pulling on are your stories about yourself, and your stories about the body, and your memories, and very deep and old emotions.

What happens when you enter into the yoga pose with steadiness and ease is that your effort relaxes, and the mind softens. Instead of saying, There is me and my leg, there is just leg, different rotations in the bones, feelings in the muscles, and that just becomes energy. The energy does not belong to me or mine—suddenly the energy is just the natural world expressing itself as your leg. And then, as Patanjali says, the body and universe are indivisible.

Duality is released. The separation of our mind from our body is released. Our stories release.

Once our stories release we can rest with what is, as it is. When there is less separation our heart opens to more of life. We regain our sense of innocent wonderment as we let go of our tendency to filter every new experience through the lenses of old experiences.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Shulamit December 20, 2008 at 11:50 am

Hi Leona,

Another wonderful coincidence in our knowing each other: I was just reading Michael Stone yesterday (did you know he’s Canadian?)! Have you seen his interview in ascent magazine, “the anarchy of yoga” at ?

Thanks for this great article!


Alex - Esoteric Studies Melbourne March 3, 2010 at 9:03 am

Hi Leona, I think there is a lot of truth to what you’ve said here. The opening remarks of your article are very reminiscent of Carl Rogers’ Person Centered Therapy. I’ve found that some therapy methods like this bring us into the present and help clear away the attachment to the past. On the other hand, other talk therapies can indeed cause people to fall into the exact trap that you describe.

Jessie July 14, 2011 at 8:09 pm

Cheers pal. I do appeiracte the writing.

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