The first Evolution of Psychotherapy conference was in Phoenix, 1985. I was eager to attend and previously had never been to a major conference. I bought some decent luggage from Lands End to help me feel like I belonged at what sounded like a lofty event.
People like Carl Rogers, Carl Whittaker, and James Masterson would be there, sharing their experience and wisdom. To be in the same room with folks of their stature was intimidating and an honor.
The highlight for me was attending a session with Carl Rogers, who was in his eighties. Rogers demonstrated a counseling session with a volunteer, while we sat in awe listening carefully to each word and watching intently to see exactly what he was doing. But Rogers wasn’t “doing” anything in particular that was observable. He was, however, fully present, creating an environment that was unmistakably Rogerian. We all felt it, as did the volunteer, who spoke of it during the debrief session with the audience, although finding it hard to put into words. She described being accepted, understood, and cared about in her struggle, which helped her talk about the struggle and accept herself more easily.
In his seminal book, On Becoming a Person, Rogers talks about not evaluating others when you’re listening and trying to understand them. The Dali Lama expresses it similarly when he talks about compassion for other’s suffering. Finding words to talk about an experience of this kind is difficult (and complicated), but the message is always the same: the importance of expressing true caring.
Over the years, the work of Carl Rogers has been misunderstood and taken to be lightweight. He is often parodied by those who think that active (or reflective) listening is merely repeating to the speaker what you just heard them say. That really doesn’t get to the heart of it, nor does “just be nice” get to the heart of what the Dali Lama says. However, repeating what you heard someone say and just being nice are worth a lot in conducting human relationships!
Being fully present is a concept that gets a lot of notice these days and is part and parcel of mindfulness. It’s one thing to talk about it and tricky to do . . . and if you wonder if you are doing it, chances are you’re not. Ditto for trying too hard. Being fully present is a state of being that evolves through great personal struggle over a long period of time. And being present consistently is something few can do. When you’re in the presence of one who is truly present, you know it. People feel it being around the Dali Lama and felt it around Carl Rogers when he was alive. I certainly felt it around the psychologist and author Clark Moustakas. Of course there are and have been others.
One thing these individuals know is that we are all human and have struggles in our lives. Some days are relatively smooth, many are not, yet through the struggles they maintain a stalwart belief in the capacity of the human spirit. So, let’s not forget this about one another—it may be the most important thing we can do for ourselves and others. If we remember that we all have struggles right now in our lives, we will treat each other with more kindness and understanding. It can make a real difference, and it’s probably the most straightforward way to be fully present with others.