Like a Chinese finger cuff, the more we try to escape or run away from something that brings unpleasantness, the tighter our grip becomes and we end up holding on to it. The finger cuff is made of bamboo strips woven together into a tube, with openings on either end that are big enough to fit the tip of a finger. It is held by inserting the tips of both pointer fingers in each end by a person who is then challenged with removing their fingers, but the more they try to pull their fingers apart, the tighter the finger cuff gets around both fingers. I like to use this metaphor to describe the human tendency to grasp onto what feels uncomfortable, be it feelings, thoughts, or physical sensations. Of course, this grip we hold usually occurs on a subconscious level, which makes it difficult to stop and take the time to ‘loosen up’ and relax so that we can see and begin to work through the unpleasantness.
Much like intimacy or the human connection, the way to escape the finger cuff is to move the fingers inward and toward one another. This allows the finger cuff to ease and expand, allowing the wearer’s fingers to be free. In the same way, creating a human connection, which brings two people closer and allows one to tap into one’s inner world, frees one to identify and observe one’s feelings, emotions, or physical sensations. As writer Gregory Bateson (as cited in Epstein, 1998) pointed out, “It takes two to know one” (p. 102). I love the depth yet simplicity of this sentence. Gaining a mindfulness and appreciation of our inner experience requires the presence of another. Therapists serve as this presence for people. We remain present in people’s presence.
For a while now, I have been thinking of alternate words to describe therapy or counseling, as a way to explain the core purpose and benefit of therapy and alleviate the stigma around it. I have been wondering what other word or explanation to use to sidestep the common association people make between participating in therapy and there being something “wrong” with them. Perhaps this is a word? Presence. As therapists, we are present with our clients, and in a way that the modern world has driven us to forget. Per Epstein (2011), “mindfulness…requires the careful noting of everything that occurs in the mind-body spectrum as it unfolds” (p. 67). As therapists, we help people to “unfold”. As therapists, we assist people to be mindful during this unfolding process. We hold the space with clients in a way that allows them to hone in on their thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations as they unfold. We allow people to be who they are. We reflect back who they are.
Modern society incessantly tries to tell us who we are, what we like, what we should or shouldn’t feel, who we should our shouldn’t associate with. The practice of mindfulness in Buddhism and the mindfulness practice inherent in psychotherapy help us to cut through the barrage of bullshit being shoved down our throats. In the documentary, “The Dhamma Brothers,” inmates in a maximum security prison in Alabama participate in a ten-day silent Vipassanna retreat held on prison grounds. One of the men who completed the retreat commented, “We’re not allowed to practice freedom,” when referring to cultural oppression. Societal and systemic oppression have a strong grip that fools and deludes us into unplugging from ourselves. Therapy and the therapeutic relationship counter this oppression and allows us to discover and be who we are.