Most of What a Psychotherapist Does Is 
Not Therapy – A Paradox and its Implications

John Rowan

Therapy is a process of giving up our assumptions. So in therapy the best, final, ulti
mate approach is to encourage and enable the client to question all his or her assumptions
 without exception. As Levin (1981) says:

All conceptual constructions of the experiential process are defence 
mechanisms, to the extent that they solidify into patterns of response that 
obscure a clear perception of one’s situation and block an appropriate, 
effective and spontaneous involvement.(p.248)

The ideal therapist is someone who can approach the client in a mood expressed by
 the phrase ’emptily perfect and perfectly empty’. There is then no distortion of the
 client’s experience, no twisting of it to suit some theory. This enables the client to move
 in the same direction: that is, towards more openness, less restrictiveness. Levin says:

The therapist thus prepares a spacious clearing, a comfortable openness, for 
the other.. open out into. We might call this quality ‘spaciousness’: the 
gracious hospitable spaciousness we need to grow, to live, open up. (pp.254-

There is no statement here of any stages or levels of development, nor of any person 
or system by which change takes place. The emptiness in the therapist allows the client 
to move towards her or his own emptiness. But this, as Suzuki (1970) says:

Does not deny the world of multiplicities; mountains are there, the cherries
 are in full bloom, the moon shines most brightly in the autumnal night; but
 at the same time they are more than particularities, they appeal to us with a
 deeper meaning, they are understood in relation to what they are not. 
(Quoted in Wilber, 1979)

These things do not make us unhappy unless we see them as denying us, frustrating 
us or unattainable by us. The constant thing in all unhappiness and distress is that it is
 “I” who am unhappy or distressed, and all therapy is based on the premise that it is the
 “I” which needs to change, to be worked on. But from our new point of view we can now 
see this differently. As Wei Wu Wei put it:

Why are you unhappy? Because 99.9 per cent Of everything you think and
 Of everything you do Is for yourself – And there isn’t one.
 (Quoted in Wilber, 1979)

This is the equivalent in therapy terms of the statement I made once about Harold
 Walsby’s ultimate ideology, the ideology that enables us to describe and account for all
 ideologies (Lamm, 1984). I said that “the ultimate ideology must be understood and 
accepted by nobody”, simply because there is absolutely nothing to understand or accept.
 I went on to point out:

In fact, the metadynamic level (the ultimate ideology) can have no expression 
at all, except the negative one of showing that all basic assumptions are self-
contradictory, each in its own distinct way…..We have seen through all other 
basic sets of assumptions, and we have nothing to put in their place.
 (Rowan, unpublished manuscript).

Similarly in therapy, as we reject false self after false self in the search for the true
self, we discover that there is no end to this process. When we realise that, there is 
nowhere for unhappiness or suffering to belong or connect with. To put it in another
 way, you behold your original face on all sides. Ken Wlber (1979) puts it like this:

The more I look for the absolute self, the more I realise that I can’t find it as
 an object. And the simple reason I can’t find it as a particular object is 
because it’s every object! I can’t feel it because it is everything felt. (p.58)

This is the sort of empty paradoxical talk to which one is reduced when one tries to
 talk about what cannot really be talked about. But we have said enough to make it clear 
that from such a point of view the idea of measuring therapy, or of specifying the outcomes of psychotherapy, is absurd.

This is all very well, and very true. I could actually live up to it at times. But when I 
tried to do this and only this in therapy, I found that I usually could not do it. Always 
there seemed to be something needed first, some more immediate aim which had to be 
carried out before we could get on to the real emptiness. This now seems to me the 
essential paradox of psychotherapy; we can hardly ever do what is the best thing to do
 because there is always something better to do first.

If we just do the real therapy, the ultimate therapy, we restrict ourselves to the clients
 who are ready for that, and clients are hardly ever ready for it. This is not in any way to
 blame the clients: it is merely to recognise that the process of development is long and
 slow. When I am the client, I am no better than many of my own clients.

It seems that both therapists and clients are equally adept at avoiding the real issue,
 and perhaps this is necessary. Maybe the periphery is just as important as the centre. 
Maybe to concentrate on the centre at all times is too pure, too obsessive, too rigid, too
 arrogant; but at least it seems worth knowing: the difference between the centre and the
 periphery, the ultimate and the proximate.

Perhaps in the final analysis there are many levels of therapy, and we need to work
 on all of them at different times with different clients. If so, the sooner we know more
 about how many levels there are and how to work on each of them, the sooner we shall
 get out of empty arguments as to which level is the best. Wilber (1986) has some marvellous ideas about this.


Lamm Z (1984) ‘Ideologies in a hierarchical order: A neglected theory 7, Science and Public Policy,
 February, 40 -46

Levin DM (1981) ‘Approaches to psychotherapy: Freud, Jung and Tibetan Buddhism’ in RS Valle 
and R von Eckartsberg (eds) The Metaphors of consciousness, Plenum Press, New York

Rowan J (undated) ‘The Ultimate ideology’ (unpublished manuscript for the Walsby Society)

Suzuki R (1970) ‘Zen mind, beginners mind’, Weatherhill, New York

Wilber K (1979), ‘No Boundary: Eastern and Western Approaches to personal growth’, Shambhala,

Wilber K (1986) Chapters in ‘Transformations of consciousness’ New Science Library, Boston