Shaping debate on religion in public life.

My organism knows so much more than I do

13 Mar 2020

Jeff Leonardi, a person-centred counsellor and a member of our Ethical Futures Network, offers a preview of his recently published book ‘Spirituality and Well-being’ and makes the case for an holistic approach to knowledge.

The intellect is an invaluable and powerful servant, but a dangerous master: as human beings we have so many more resources than the intellect alone. Over time I have come to appreciate and value the various dimensions of human experience: intellect, emotion, sensing, intuition, imagination, and so on.

Recently, I have been co-editing a book with Professor Bettina Schmidt on ‘Spirituality and Well-being’. My own chapter in the collection focusses on spirituality as embodiment and ‘The Christian Understanding of the Body’. I sketch the history and development of Christian perspectives on physicality and carnality, both negative and positive, and suggest that the Incarnation demands an affirmative, even celebratory, view of our physicality. I am also a Person-centred counsellor in the tradition founded by Carl Rogers. This approach emphasises empathy, realness and unconditional acceptance. In my chapter I develop the Person-centred concept of the greater integrity of the total organism and of organismic awareness and valuing. As Rogers writes: ‘My organism knows so much more than I do’. What fascinates me is the way in which we come to know things as the result of inner, subjective experiences as well as external and seemingly objective observation.

However, the problem with affirming the value and potential wisdom of subjective responses is that some of them can be mistaken, misguided, fallacious or delusional. Equally, subjective experiences can also be penetrating, perceptive, accurate and appropriate. Most, if not all, of what gives value to human life derives from subjective processes, yet because they are ‘inner’ and not ‘outer’ they are harder to validate conclusively. I believe that if we wish to regain a healthier balance scientifically, culturally, psychologically and spiritually, we need to learn discernment with regard to the internal world of subjective responses and processes and learn how to discriminate between authentic and unreliable inner experiences.

My experience as a Person-centred therapist is profoundly significant for me in this project. As a therapist I regularly seek to attend to and enter into another person’s subjective processes. In this endeavour, what matters is not usually the objective status of the client’s statements, but rather what they mean to them. In this sense, empathy is more important than analysis.

The therapist must also be empathetic towards themselves. In the Person-centred approach, congruence on the part of the therapist is essential. That is, the expressed attitude and behaviour of the therapist towards the client must accurately match their inner experience, and in this sense the therapist can be a reliable and trustworthy companion to the client and can offer honest feedback or personal response as appropriate. This requires that the therapist continually keeps in touch with their personal feelings and responses as well as holding their client in awareness. In holding their own processes in awareness, the therapist must make moment by moment assessments of what in their personal responding is or seems appropriate for the client as an accurate response and not just an idiosyncratic personal reaction. In this way, the therapist must become something of an expert in relation to their own subjectivity, able to make these moment by moment discriminations based on their inner experience.

There are striking comparisons here with what Richard Rohr calls ‘contemplative epistemology’ and the ‘wisdom of the heart’:

“Wisdom is a way of being—a way of being whole and fully open to a knowing beyond rational thought alone. Do not confuse this kind of knowing as lightweight, saccharine, or ephemeral. The exact opposite is true. To see in such a way requires the hard work of keeping all our inner spaces open—mind, heart, and body—all at once. This is at the center of any authentic spirituality, and it does not happen easily or without paying respectful and non-egoic attention to the moment in front of me and within me.”

This affirmation of knowing in three different yet integrated ways can be seen to correspond to the Person-centred view of the human being as expressed in an organismic unity of mind, emotion and body—and indeed spirit. In this sense, the human organism already contains the ingredients of a way of knowing that goes beyond a compartmentalised or reductivist awareness.

I am very excited about the book Bettina and I have produced. Although its main theme is ‘spirituality and wellbeing’, there is another important argument running through it about the status of spirituality, faith and religion in a secular society. Many of the contributors provide compelling evidence for the profound contribution made by these dimensions of awareness to a person’s health and well-being, and therefore of the importance of medical and other practitioners treating them and catering for them with respect and understanding. In all these ways engagement with subjective realities is of primary importance, along with the need to develop gifts of discernment.

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1 Comment


13/03/2020 09:00

How can that which is felt rather than known be discerned by a professional whose training is rooted in science and whose priority by necessity, must be the acquisition of conventional and empirical knowledge, (to pass exams/become qualified/have any hope of practicing). Even the vocational professional, having no other recourse but to follow the recognised and acceptable route to practice, is blinded with years of science and the need to qualify. Could professionalisation lead to disablement to counsell?

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