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Meeting at relational depth: what does it involve?

"A consultation is when the room disappears."   David Reilly (physician) 

On Saturday I went to a course called "Meeting at relational depth: a research workshop".  I have already written a first post outlining the day.  After staying overnight in Glasgow with a friend who was also coming to the course, we cycled over to Jordanhill Campus the next morning.  There were a couple of dozen or so participants on the workshop - a pretty good turn out.

Professor Mick Cooper, who was running the day, greeted us and gave some background.  As in his book about relational depth, looking at these issues can lead one down into pretty basic questions like "What is an individual?", "In what senses are a baby and a nursing mother better seen as one organism rather than two?", and "What is consciousness?".  We touched on mirror neurons in the human brain with their possible relevance to our ability to empathise with others or "stand in their shoes".  It tumbles me into thoughts about individuality, sense of self, and sense of other.  I've loved the neurologist Antonio Damasio's books, particularly "The feeling of what happens: body, emotion & the making of consciousness".  Damasio is Professor of Psychology, Neurology & Neuroscience at the University of Southern California.  I first heard of his work at a European Trauma Conference where one of the main speakers challenged cognitive behavioural therapists (including himself) to consider the implications of Damasio's insights for our work as therapists.  Interestingly the current research interest in mindfulness overlaps into these areas.  I note appreciatively that Damasio has a new book coming out next month called "Self comes to mind: constructing the conscious brain".  I've pre-ordered myself a copy.

OK that's a bit of a detour, but it's relevant to what might be involved in relating deeply with another person.  We now moved on to the first of four major exercises that we explored over the day.  This first one involved getting into pairs or groups of three and discussing our experience of times when we felt we were relating especially deeply with another person.  Fascinating.  I talked about a sense of slowing down, of coming out of "just being in my head" into a fuller sense of being present in my body too.  I noted that when I'm relating deeply with another person, the tone of my voice changes.  I seem to be speaking more deeply and it resonates through my chest and belly as well as my head.  I talked about a sense of connection with the other person, closeness, love.  I spoke too about how this deeper being with another is, for me, often shot through with feelings of joy.  A kind of stepping out of time.  So interesting to hear others' experiences.  We shared in our small group of three, then in the full group, and then Mick handed out sheets describing how other groups he'd taken had spoken about their experiences of deeply close relating.  Headings included Realness, Affirmation, Empathy, Aliveness, Immersed, Altered State, Flow, Feeling Impacted Upon, Safety, Stillness, Healing, Humility, Uniqueness, Transcendence/Spirituality, Connection, Mutuality, and so on.  So many experiences and descriptions, but they did seem to be about a recognizable countryside.  Probably the experience of deeply relating with another person is going to be best described as involving several facets or aspects, as we're discovering as researchers look more deeply at mindfulness.  I suspect exploration of experiences of deep relationship would benefit from similar research on possible facets (see towards the end of this post for more on facets/components).

Reflecting on this now - more as an explorer than as a serious map maker - I personally would highlight four or five overlapping facets I recognise in my experience of relating deeply with others as a therapist, as a friend, as a husband, as a parent.  One links with the "Experiencing scale" and with "Focusing" .  It's about my personal ability to sink down deeply into my feelings, my "felt-sense".  As Damasio argues powerfully and with great insight, this inner self-connection is somato-visceral more than it is cerebral.  So a major part of my ability to relate profoundly with another person, I believe, links with whether or not I can relate profoundly with my self, my own inner felt-sense - and both whether I can put words adequately to what I find inside, and also whether I have the courage to do so.  And this links, I think, with another facet of deep relationship - does it feel safe enough to risk opening up to this other person?  And this is partly about a sense of acceptance, welcome, interest, care, cherishing - and it is also about one's own courage, familiarity with "swimming" in these inner waters, a self-acceptance that allows one to feel that even if the other person isn't able or available to hear what one is offering of oneself - that I can survive this.  This links with attachment security, and for many people the fear of "being let down again", being judged, misunderstood, ignored, not valued can lead them into a lifetime of not risking this closeness

And for "meeting" as a full reciprocal experience in, for example, a deep friendship - then there also needs to be a similar ability and willingness to open and give from the other person.  So they need to feel safe enough.  They need to feel heard.  And this is, in many ways, about my ability to love them, to open to and feel and listen to and respect them.  And for me as a therapist, often the client may have very little experience of connecting and articulating what's going on deep inside them.  So, at certain times in some psychotherapeutic meetings, there seems to be great potential value in gently, respectfully, kindly helping this other person to walk down deeply inside to explore and feel what's happening for them, to find out more who they are.  And I believe this experience of being known and cherished again links to attachment, and can be profoundly healing.  The blog post "Meeting at relational depth: a model" can help to clarify this. 

Most of the time in therapy or in a friendship or in a family, one isn't relating at this level - thank heavens!  This way of being with another person, for me, is at the heart of all my most precious friendships, but like listening to an extraordinary bit of music or sinking into the experience of a wonderful landscape - it takes time, I need to slow, almost to stop.  And in therapy, most of the time, I'm getting on with problem-solving, with helping the client learn to change their depression or anxiety or other distress into something much better.  This is fine.  It's very good.  And there's this other gear of deeper relating too.  It leaks out, it colours interactions all the time - as compassion, as empathy, as gentleness.  Hopefully it's often a backdrop to the getting-on-with-it busy-ness of therapy or just living.  And in some therapeutic sequences, going down to this place more "formally", more deliberately is - I believe - of great use. 

At lunchtime, Mick handed out several photocopies.  One was of a talk he had given a year or so ago entitled "Relational depth: a review of the research".  This was interesting and helpful.  It listed a dozen or so studies published (or awaiting publication) in the last couple of years.  Interestingly one section of the talk focused on "Four facets of relational depth" with slides entitled "1. Intrapersonal: present", "2. Experience of other: other as open", "3. Relational: connectedness" & "4. Atmosphere: transcendent".  A summary slide stated "Commonalities in descriptions of relational depth suggest that it is a real and distinctive phenomenon: A sense of connectedness and flow with another person that is so powerful that it can feel quite magical.  At these times the person feels alive, immersed in the encounter, and truly themselves; while experiencing the other as open, genuine and valuing of who they are".  Pretty good, but I think I find the "Meeting at relational depth: a model" of more practical use to check with if I'm deliberately shifting gear to deepen an interaction.

Tomorrow I'll post on the second exercise we tried in "Meeting at relational depth: what intrigued me most".


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