Other-Centred Therapy: Buddhist Psychology in Action, By Caroline Brazier

In stark contrast to the stereotypical Western therapist forever distracting the client from their stories about the world in order to ask “but how do you feel?”, the Other Centred therapist listens carefully to the stories themselves. Indeed, this book presents examples of client work in which the therapist asks the opposite question about a partner whose behaviour the client is complaining about: “but what was that like for him?”.

Rating: 4.5

Other-Centred Therapy: Buddhist Psychology in Action

By , 2009. ISBN 9781846942372. O Books. 420 pages.

This is the second book in the series which began with Listening to the Other. (See my review: “Caroline Brazier on Listening to the Other”.) While Listening to the Other was primarily aimed at people using counselling skills in their work, here Caroline Brazier develops her practical guide to Other Centred Therapy to apply specifically to practising therapists.

The book is structured into twelve sessions, clearly presented and ordered, and written in jargon free language. This gives the reader the impression that a real person is sharing their experiences and knowledge, rather than giving an abstract lecture. Each session includes a few practical exercises, which vary from private reflection to free drawing, collage, and triad work. In fact the book lends itself to exploration in pairs or groups, but it is perfectly possible to gain a full experience of working through the book alone; I did so myself.

The book starts by investigating counselling and therapy as they currently exist and function in Western culture, looking at the matter from all sides: historical, social, cultural, personal, spiritual, with a particular focus on the values underpinning the enterprise. Has the therapist replaced the priest in Western culture? What values are we really encouraging in our practices as therapists, and what underpins our work? While this investigation is appropriate for all kinds of counselling and therapy, Brazier is grounded in the humanistic, existential, person centred traditions, valuing relationship and empathy as primary factors in successful therapy; and counsellors from a similar base are likely to get optimum value from her new insights and approach to therapeutic practice.

From here we start a personal journey, finding out what we are ‘standing on’ in our therapeutic work, getting a felt sense of what underpins, grounds and holds us and our client. Brazier strikes a balance between personal discovery, with physical grounding and attention exercises and facilitative questions, and a theoretical presentation of the work of Rogers and of Japanese teacher and priest Gaisho Saiko. Once the ground has been laid, in a kind of personally felt and individually expressed form of faith, or trust, we move on to the “Buddhist psychology” of the title (although Buddhism is so varied that I am not at all sure that all Buddhists would sign up to it!), with it’s foundations in “object relations”.

“Object related identity” in a Buddhist rather than psychoanalytic sense, holds that “the mind is conditioned by the object of attention” (p. 53). And the object we are concentrating on (any person, thing, experience) is no more and no less than the perceived object. What we expect to see, we see, and by seeing it we expect to see more of it, and so we remain stuck. “A self-reinforcing cycle of expectation and reaction means that we build around us a psychological wall to keep out the things we fear and resist” (p. 53). And life being unpredictable, there is plenty to fear and plenty to resist. We start to call this mentality or defensive structure we create, “me” — an identity created around habits we form to distract ourselves, protect ourselves, or go directly for oblivion.

The creation of this world, our world, or “me”, involves taking in various objects (people, experiences) to support our sense of self and our sense of the reality and safety of our worlds. We seek out things and people which support our way of seeing (maybe we only choose people who agree with us, or maybe everyone is the enemy). This is a pattern which is quite well known in therapy and in a psychology-literate culture — e.g., the abused person who keeps making new relationships and getting more of the same. The refrain, “how can I break out of the pattern?” fills many a therapy room.

The answer, Brazier suggests, starts with paying particular attention to these objects which we perceive as being significant to us and which condition how we think and feel. She refers to them with the Buddhist term “rupa” (p. 93). The word “rupa” not only means “perceived object” but also says something about “its power to fascinate us and to draw our attention” (p. 93). You could call it a “trigger” or “button” that gets pressed, or a motif that arises in our life again and again.

The therapist pays attention to the rupas, and then draws them out and explores their power. This process is illustrated by a substantial, extended example of work with a client, which is easy for the reader to engage with. The strategies vary from amplifying the ‘rupa quality’ of the object (in the example, a feared schoolteacher from years ago) to gaining distance from it, to setting a scene re-creating it, with all the details, in the therapy room, or the use of mild trance states.

A rupa of course can be quite terrifying, so there is a close consideration of ways in which to keep the client engaging with it at a safe distance, dealing with flashbacks, and trauma, creating grounding techniques and a sense of refuge.

In the eighth session, “Moving into Action”, Brazier includes an interesting section on the use of psychodrama, as originally developed by Jacob Moreno, and chair work, in which a dialogue takes place between the client and the person sitting in the empty chair. Actually acting out the scenes which are important to the client, rather than talking “about” them are described as a powerful way of producing a change in the client’s world, not in theory but in action. Session nine moves on to “Working With Physical Objects” as a similar way of making the work concrete, and engaging more than the intellect or somewhat disengaged feelings. Objects can be used as anchors, memorials, or parts of the creative/therapeutic process of sculpting (what we are doing when we are talking to a friend in a cafe and moving the pepper pots around).

From the nuts and bolts of therapy, Brazier moves into a discussion of “mindfulness” — something of a buzzword in therapy currently. While appreciating its use as a technique for remaining in the moment, she deepens the use of the term to include “having a respectful relationship with reality, which appreciates its otherness and the fact that it is not under our control or a function of our desires” (p. 240). It is about remembering to be open to others and not twisting reality to suit our own sense of self, be it positive or negative. It is also, she argues, about remembering the spiritual dimension and the sacred, even though these should not be specifically brought into the therapeutic relationship.

So in stark contrast to the stereotypical Western therapist forever distracting the client from their stories about the world in order to ask “but how do you feel?”, the Other Centred therapist listens carefully to the stories themselves, or even sets the scene, gets inside it and watches them alongside the client, and considers the knee-jerk reflex to stop the unfolding story and focus in on feelings and identity as likely to increase the problem rather than allow the client to move on. Indeed, Brazier presents examples of client work in which the therapist asks the opposite question about a partner whose behaviour the client is complaining about: “but what was that like for him?”.

This engagement with real others can also be undertaken when the people concerned have died. The issues of honouring history, creating memorials, laying ghosts to rest and expressing gratefulness are all given the same thoughtful and practical consideration. (There is an extended discussion of the Japanese therapy, Naikan, which involves detailed consideration of everything your parents have ever done for you, in another reversal from stereotypical Western therapist or ‘therapy-culture’ blaming parents for all ills.)

Brazier refers to “a view that the person is most healthy when they are fully engaged with what they are doing or with the person to whom they are relating, rather than when they are self-consciously observing their experiences” (p. 89). In line with this way of thinking, the book finishes with a consideration of the role of therapy: is it not more worthwhile to improve the material conditions of people’s lives, to be in contact with the people around you, or to work for the continued survival of the planet, rather than sit in a therapy room analysing your feelings with a stranger?

The conclusion is an appeal for balance, for a therapy with its feet on the ground and its heart open to others, not considering itself to be special, but just another active, useful part of our interconnected world. Clients who free themselves from self-preoccupation might well discover, and enjoy, the same attitude, which Brazier presents so clearly, and with heart.

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