Presence in Transpersonal Psychotherapy

by Jamal Granick

There is a growing body of theory and evidence that suggests that psychotherapists’ phenomenological experience of their own awareness, focused attention, relatedness to their clients, and receptivity to unconventional modes of knowing may have therapeutic effects; i.e., apart from theoretical orientation or technique, the therapist’s own subjectively experienced state may be an implicit therapeutic variable.  Optimal therapist states of awareness, being, and relatedness have collectively been labeled “presence.” In a certain sense, research into the usefulness of the construct “presence” as a therapeutic variable can be traced to the following quote from an interview with Carl Rogers:

“I find that when I am the closest to my inner, intuitive self --when perhaps I am somehow in touch with the unknown in me--when perhaps I am in a slightly altered state of consciousness in the relationship, then whatever I do seems to be full of healing. Then simply my presence is releasing and helpful. At those moments, it seems that my inner spirit has reached out and touched the inner spirit of the other. Our relationship transcends itself, and has become part of something larger. Profound growth and healing are present” (In Baldwin, 2000, p. 36).

Research on presence in psychotherapy has primarily been comprised of phenomenological explorations of clinicians’ subjective experiences of optimal states in the therapeutic situation. Some studies have also explored presence as a theoretical construct, suggested therapeutic models of presence, and linked presence to Rogers’ “core conditions” of psychotherapy; empathy, congruence, and unconditional positive regard. Theorists have also conceptualized presence in the context of an intersubjective, or transpersonal “field” in which both therapist and client participate. This article argues that presence is a useful construct to inform the practice of psychotherapy from a transpersonal perspective, with specific implications for the personal and professional development of the practitioner, as well as for professional education of transpersonal psychotherapists.

A review of several studies of studies (Butlein, 2005; Cooper, 2005; Fraelich, 1989; Geller& Greenberg, 2002; Jonas & Crawford, 2004; Phelon, 2004; West, 1997) of therapist presence and related constructs suggests a significant commonality of themes among therapists’ attributions about their subjective experience of the qualities of presence. For purposes of this article the author analyzed these to identify and categorize common themes. Four categories were identified: Being, Receiving, Influencing, and Participating.
Being pertains primarily the therapists’ internal attributes and relationship with themselves. It relates to the therapists’ capacity to attend to themselves fully, as well as to their clients. It is revealed in the extent to which they are perceived as congruent, and reflects their level of psychological and spiritual development. Receiving pertains to the therapist’s receptivity, both in general and to the client’s experience specifically.
Whereas Being has more of an intrapersonal focus, Receiving is more outwardly focused and interpersonal. Hence it includes therapists’ awareness and perception of clients’ experience, as well their capacity for empathy.

Influencing refers to the effects of the therapist’s attention on the client. Beyond the direct results of the therapist’s interventions, Influencing includes the implicit effects of the therapist’s being that are perceived by the client as healing.

Finally, Participating pertains to the therapist’s experience of involvement with the client in a therapeutic relationship that has both interpersonal and transpersonal aspects. It includes the quality of connection in the relationship, the degree to which that connection is experience as energetic, the perceives sense of a resonance between that therapist and client that transcends the ordinary boundaries of the self-object relationship, and the sense of mutual participation in a larger field beyond the limitations of time and space.

As it is not within the scope of this paper to review all of the qualities in detail, the following discussion will use this framework to review the major themes across studies as starting point for a more general discussion of the relevance of the construct “presence” to the practice of psychotherapy. Specific qualities will be selected for discussion based on the frequency with which they occurred, or the extent to which they are characteristic of, their respective categories.

Qualities of Presence

Immersion was explicitly identified as a quality of presence by several studies. It can be considered as a state of absorption in one’s experience, in a sense presence as “being present to.” Presence has been described as being comprised of the qualities absorption, experiencing deeply with non-attachment, present-centeredness, and awareness. Immersion has also been described as being “alive, energized, ‘wide awake’” yet so engaged in experiencing that “fifty minutes could pass in a flash, or a few minutes could seem to last for hours”. The sense of timelessness has also been noted as a quality of the “expansion”, which also includes enhanced awareness, sensation, and perception, as well as “inner spaciousness.”

Presence has been related to congruence, another of the major qualities. Congruence can be defined as consistency between levels of expression, such as verbal and non-verbal communication, as well as between self-concept and perceived presentation. Congruence falls within the larger category identified here as Being and could be considered the keystone of that category, constellating the other qualities in that category such as development (personal and spiritual), spirituality, capacity for concentration, inwardly directed attention, and the ability to the be in the “here and now.” To the extent that congruence reflects consistency between self-concept and presentation, inward attention seems to be a critical component, as congruence would be predicated upon self-knowledge and awareness of one’s subjective experience.

Some variant of congruence was identified as a quality of presence by several researchers. Terms that were used synonymously included, authenticity, genuineness, and transparency. High levels of congruence have been identified as a characteristic quality of presence, and some specifically link congruence to Rogers’ core conditions of therapy.  It has been suggested that presence is both the precondition of congruence and subsumes it.
Similarly, presence has been seen to be both foundational to, and the expression of, empathy, another of Rogers’ core conditions. Empathy can be understood as the ability to deeply understand and “feel into” another’s experience. Empathy falls within the major category identified here as Receiving, and can be considered as the culmination of several of the qualities contained therein. Attitudes of acceptance and open heartedness, alignment with the client, allowing and respect, interest and care, all set the stage for the kind of attunement to the client’s experience that create the condition from which empathy emerges.

For some deep empathy transcends the subject-object boundary between therapist and client, allowing for a direct apprehension of clients’ internal experience. Knowing across or beyond the limitations of ordinary communication relates to the therapist’s perception, another theme in the category Receiving. Some researchers have explicitly identified intuition as a quality of presence.

The transcendence of the subject-object border relates to another of the major themes, resonance, which has been described as the therapist and client aligning through a shared frequency and connecting at an energetic level. Identified qualities of resonance have included inner concentration, synchronization of movements, non-verbal communication, and a somatic perception of the others’ feelings.

In this state, trust and intimacy, two of the qualities identified as relating to  the theme of connection, are heightened and there is a sense of shared awareness; a sense of knowing that one is known. Some have described this level of connection as transcending both individuals, being grounded in a non-dual consciousness, or Unity.

The sense of mutual participation in a larger field is also one of the identified qualities of presence. This is reminiscent of Rogers’ statement “At those moments, it seems that my inner spirit has reached out and touched the inner spirit of the other. Our relationship transcends itself, and has become part of something larger.” The idea of mutual participation in a larger, energetic field that is in some sense universal or divine is closely connected with the idea of healing.

Researchers Jonas and Crawford state, “Healing presence involves experiencing and placing awareness on these more central, nonlocal dimensions in which humanity is close and more universally connected to each other and the divine.” In their study of healers’ experience of presence they develop a model of four forms of healing presence: alignment with God, immersion into a universal consciousness, transmission of spiritual energy, and interaction with spiritual forces or entities. “Subtle energy” and “energetic interconnectedness” are also referred to by West in his study of therapists who included spiritual healing in their work. He identified two forms of healing in this study, deliberate and incidental, comparing the latter to Rogers’ description of presence in psychotherapy.
Presence has been demonstrated to be a useful construct to conceptualize the practice of psychotherapy from a transpersonal perspective.  It has been used as a phenomenological heuristic to synthesize intrapersonal, interpersonal, and transpersonal dimensions of therapists’ experience. In the intrapersonal dimension it touches on therapists’ development, personal and spiritual. The interpersonal dimension of presence addresses the therapist’s capacity for, and experience of, profound relatedness and its implications for therapeutic functioning. The transpersonal dimension of presence contextualizes relational depth in a resonant energetic field that transcends the relationship and, potentially, connects with that which is universal.
The construct can potentially serve as an organizing principle for theoretical integration, bringing together the conceptual domains of person-centered therapy, intersubjectivity theory, and transpersonal psychology, as well as grounding psychotherapy theory as a contemporary modality in the larger tradition of healing.
However, while therapists perceptions of their own presence is interesting, without objective measures of the correlations between therapists’ subjectively experienced states and the physiological entrainment between therapist and client, the question of whether an intersubjectively experienced resonance is only phenomenological, or possibly ontological as well, remains unaddressed. In the absence of such measures, phenomenological study of clients’ subjective experience of therapist presence, including in-session experience of the therapist and the relationship, as well as post-session follow up on treatment outcomes, could lend more validity to the construct and its usefulness in therapy.

It is now generally accepted that the therapeutic alliance represents a significant variable in psychotherapy outcome, but many studies have noted discrepancies between therapists’ and clients’ perception of the therapeutic alliance, suggesting that a deeper inquiry into how presence is communicated would be useful.

These findings underscore the importance of self-knowledge and personal development for psychotherapists. Useful research could be conducted exploring the intrapersonal antecedents of therapist presence, particularly as they relate to spiritual practice. From this perspective, it is interesting to consider how the cultivation of the qualities of presence may constitute spiritual practice, in and of itself.

This also raises questions about professional education. Should the cultivation of presence be included in transpersonal psychotherapy training? If so, can presence be operationalized? How does the identification of presence as an internal state correlate with skill-based training of counseling and psychotherapy technique? Perhaps it is the case that practicing the skills of counseling associated with the qualities of presence, when practiced with the intention of spiritual development, is a potential path to cultivating the spiritual presence of the transpersonal psychologist.


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