in: Client-centred and experiential psychotherapy: a
paradigm in motion (1996). Eds: R. Hutterer et.al.
The Deep Structure of the Core Conditions:
A Buddhist perspective
In this paper I explore what seem to me significant parallels between views of the person, and of therapy, in Buddhism and in the work of Carl Rogers. The background parallels involve similar aims, recognition of the essential trustworthiness of human nature, the importance of an internal locus of evaluation, the ‘process’ view of the self, and the therapeutic process which involves a reduction of ‘incongruence’ or ‘delusion’. Given this background I look in more detail at the nature of the core conditions, relating these lo what is seen in Buddhism as the overcoming of the three ‘afflictive emotions’. I then explore how both in Buddhism and client-centred therapy the process of therapeutic change can be seen as centred on the ‘softening’ or dissolution of the self(-concept) insofar as this is experienced as a ‘rigid’ structure. I conclude with a theoretical reflection on why, given my analysis, there are just three core conditions, and a clinical reflection on the implications for which of the core conditions should be given preferential emphasis in different forms of psychological disturbance.
This paper is an attempt to explore the relationship between some central themes of Buddhism and client-centred therapy. I am conscious of the great gulf in time and culture between Buddhism, an ancient Asian path of liberation, and client-centred therapy, a modem Western school of psychotherapy; yet having been struck by what seem to me to be important parallels (Purton, 1993), I feel impelled to explore them further. I also want to use the parallel with Buddhism to explore some specific themes in the client-centred approach which seem to me worth exploring, especially what it is about the human situation which makes the core conditions of empathy, respect and genuineness so important. Finally, having developed at least in sketchy form a view of what the core conditions amount to when approached from a Buddhist point of view, I return at the end of the paper to some empirical or clinical consequences of what I have said.
Clients typically come to therapy because they are confused, depressed, anxious, lacking self-
confidence, experiencing difficulties in relationships and so on. In short, they come out of a
sense of deep unsatisfactoriness, out of a feeling that all is not well with them as per
sons. Successful therapy is therapy which helps clients to move to more satisfactory states of
being, where clarity replaces confusion, depression lifts, anxiety abates, and respect and un
derstanding both of self and of others improve.
This is the common sense, and phenomenological, picture of the therapeutic progress. How
ever, the client-centred approach also has a theory, which attempts to explain the phenomenol
really are through the development of a self-concept which does not adequately represent our
experience. This happens partly because of the conditions of worth which are imposed by sig
nificant others, and partly because of our need for a coherent sense of self. In a word, our self-
concept becomes increasingly incongruent with our experience, and this state of incongruence
lies at the root of our state of distress or felt unsatisfactoriness. It is incongruence which results
in our sense of alienation from ourself; it destroys the possibility of genuine self- respect and
self- understanding; and it interferes with our capacity to respect and understand others. In
short, from a theoretical point of view, if there is a single aim of therapy it is that of client con
gruence. The therapist’s task is the simple, though difficult, one of helping the client to become
what he or she really is.
In the Majjhima Nikaya (i, 130) the Buddha says: ”Today and formerly, monks, I teach just two
things - suffering and the release from suffering”. The word translated as ‘suffering’ here is
duhkha, and from the contexts of its use it is clear that duhkha doesn’t just mean suffering in
the sense of pain. It is not exactly the pain, but the ‘unsatisfactoriness’ of things which
Buddhism aims to reduce, just as in therapy we know that on the path to a more satisfactory
way of being there may well be as much, or even more, pain than before.
The pervasiveness of duhkha is the first of the four ‘Noble Truths’ of Buddhism. The other truths
deal with the cause and alleviation of duhkha, and what is said is that duhkha is essentially rooted
in ‘craving’ and in ‘ignorance’. Both these terms need explanation, and I shall say more about
them shortly, but I will just remark that although ‘craving’ is often presented as the cause of
duhkha the Buddhist writings emphasise that craving itself is rooted in a deep misperception of
the nature of oneself and of the world. It is not a simple matter of suffering arising from our not
getting what we want; the deep source of duhkha, it is said, lies in our emotional misconception
of our self as having a certain fixed nature. We experience ourselves as being essentially such-
and- such, and then suffer as a result of the discrepancy between our picture of ourself and
what we really are. . I will try to explain this Buddhist approach to the notion of the self more
clearly later, but here just want to indicate the sort of parallel that exists with the client-cen
tred approach: it is that both Buddhism and the client-centred approach begin with the person
(client) in a state of unsatisfactoriness (duhkha), and while the superficial cause of this may be
certain attachments or fear, the deep cause, as identified by the respective ’theories’, is that the
person misperceives and hence mislives what they really are.
is central to
though this soundness almost inevitably becomes obscured. The corresponding theme in Bud
dhism is that of the original Buddha-nature. In the Tathagatagarbha Sutra the Buddha says:
...all the living beings, though they exist among the defilements of hatred, anger, and ig
norance, have the Buddha’s wisdom, Buddha’s Eye. Buddha’s body sitting firmly in the
form of meditation. - Thus, in spite of their being covered by defilements...they are pos
sessed of the Matrix of the Tathagata [Buddha-nature], endowed with virtues, always
pure, and hence not different from me.” Having thus observed, the Buddha preached the
doctrine in order to remove the defilements and manifest the Buddha- nature within the
living beings. (Williams, 1989, p. 97)
This parallel needs little comment. For both Buddhism and Carl Rogers the basic nature of hu
man beings is trustworthy; if there is neurosis or duhkha in human life this is because there has
been distortion or obscuration of what is at heart good and sound.
tions of worth that are imposed on us. There develops an ‘incongruence’ between what we
really are and how we perceive ourself. That which we call our self is not truly our self, but a
distorted version thereof, a mask. We come to value things not from our own internal locus of
evaluation but from that of others. The mask develops out of the pressure we feel to be what
others want us to be, and once established it constitutes our sense of identity. Yet this ‘self’
which we feel to be ourself is illusory; it is not who we really are. We are in a state of incongru
Buddhism emphasises the importance of an internal locus of evaluation in passages such as
And whosoever, Ananda, either now, or after I am dead, shall be a lamp unto them-
selves. and a refuge unto themselves, shall betake themselves to no external refuge, but holding
fast to the truth as their lamp, and holding fast as their refuge to the truth, shall not look for ref
uge to anyone besides themselves - it is they, Ananda....who shall reach the very topmost
height - but they must be anxious learn. (Mahaparinibbana Sutta, II, 31-5, in Foy, 1978, p.
Of whatever teachings you can assure yourself in this way: These teachings lead to
calmness, not to neurotic passion;.... to individuality, not to immersion in the group; ... of
such teachings you may affirm with certainty: This is the Dharma. This is the ethical
life. This is the Master’s message.’ (Vinaya, II, 10)
Given that we have lost touch with what we really are, it is crucial, if we are to regain our re
ality, that our nature should be open to change. If the illusory self (or self- concept) is of the
nature of a fixed thing, then there is no hope for us, but if on the other hand the self is a flux, a
process, this process may lead back to our original nature. The latter, optimistic view, is shared
by Rogers and Buddhism. The Buddha says in the Samyutta-nikaya (35, 43): “All is imperma
nent. And what is the all that is impermanent? The eye is impermanent, forms are imperma
nent.....The mind is impermanent, mental objects, consciousness, whatever is felt.... is imper
manent.” And in the Lalitavistara Sutra: “The three worlds are impermanent like autumn
clouds: the birth and death of living beings is similar to viewing a dance; life is gone like a flash
of lightning in the sky, quickly passing like a mountain waterfall. “ (Batchelor, 1987, p.219)
Thus far the picture presented both in client-centred therapy and in Buddhism is that of the
person as basically sound, but suffering from illusory self- perception. The illusory self is open
to change, however, and I want to consider now what is involved in such change.
The central theme of the client-centred approach is that therapeutic change consists in a
movement from a state of incongruence of self and experience to one of congruence, and that this movement is facilitated by the presence of three attitudes in the therapist, i.e. empathy, respect and genuineness. However, before continuing some remarks are needed about terminology.
(a) Congruence and genuineness
the definitions section of his major theoretical paper
that “when self- experiences are accurately symbolized, and are included in the self- concept in
this accurately symbolized form, then the state is one of congruence of self and experience.”
A person in a state of congruence is thus genuine or authentic, in the sense that they are them-
self, that they are not acting out of any self-deception. Now congruence in this sense is com
patible with various forms of untruthfulness, hypocrisy or play-acting. If someone judges in a
particular situation that it is best to lie, or consciously decides to play a particular role, that
does not in itself detract from the person’s congruence or authenticity, since there need be no
incongruence here between self-concept and experience. Conversely, it is quite possible to be
open and honest with someone to the best of one’s ability and yet be incongruent.
Now from the point of view of therapy, both incongruence and dishonesty in the therapist are
detrimental. The client needs to experience genuine respect and empathy, so that if they sense
that the therapist is either pretending or self-deceived the conditions for therapeutic change
are not met. It is combined congruence-and-honesty which is important in the therapist, so
that it is useful to have a word which covers this combination. ‘Genuineness’ or ‘transparency’
seem satisfactory terms, since being genuine (or ‘transparent’) seems to rule out both pretence
The aim of client-centred therapy is client congruence (i.e. the client becoming him- or her-
self). It is not the aim of therapy to facilitate client honesty, for whether or when to be honest is
a matter for the moral judgement of the client.
I need also to say something about the relationship between ‘respect’, ‘acceptance’ and ‘empa
thy’. Person-centred writers often use ‘respect’ as synonymous with ‘acceptance’; however I
think that there are significant differences between the two.
Respect involves the acceptance of individuality and difference. When Kahlil Gibran (1964, p.
16) says in connection with marriage “let there be spaces in your togethemess. And let the
winds of heaven dance between you” he is touching on just this. However, respect does not
necessarily involve any personal closeness or warmth in the usual sense of the word. We may
not like the other person much or feel we have much in common with them, but this is imma
terial since we don’t come into the picture. We respect them for what they are, independently of
By contrast, when we feel close to someone, when for the moment we share their world, when
‘two hearts beat as one’, then we are accepting our lack of individuality; it is as though the
boundaries between us have temporarily dissolved. This is also a kind of ‘acceptance’, but
clearly we are here more in the territory of ‘empathy’ than of ‘respect’.
tions he acknowledges the link between them in his paper ‘Empathic: an unappreciated way of
being’ (Rogers, 1980, p. 152):
A second consequence of empathic understanding is that the recipient feels valued, cared
for, accepted as the person that he or she is. It might seem that we have here stepped in
to another area, and that we are no longer speaking of empathy. But this is not so. It is
impossible to accurately sense the perceptual world of another person unless you value
that person and his or her world - - unless you, in some sense, care.
Empathy thus involves a degree of respect, but equally we might argue that respect cannot be
real unless it includes a degree of empathy. I can’t really respect you unless I have some under
standing of who you are. Respect and empathy can interpenetrate, I suggest, because they are
both aspects of acceptance. As I am using the terms, respect involves accepting and valuing
people for what they are in themselves, as a reality separate from me, while empathy involves
accepting and valuing our commonality, our sharing of a perspective on the world.
these clarifications let us return to the process of therapy.
The self is now more congruent with the experiencing. Thus the persons have become, in their attitudes towards themselves, more caring and acceptant, more empathic and understanding, more real and congruent. But these three elements are the very ones that both experience and research indicate are the attitudes of an effective therapist.
Looking at the therapeutic process in this way, what the client is doing, with the therapist’s
facilitation, is overcoming his or her own lack of respect, empathy, and congruence. I stress this
way of seeing it so that the process can be compared more easily with what it is that Buddhists
are trying to overcome in themselves, namely the three kleshas or ‘afflictive emotions’ known by
the tags of ‘greed’, ‘hate’ and ‘illusion’. In Buddhism it is held that it is these three which in all
their varieties and combinations obscure our inherent Buddha-nature.
Buddhism, no less than client-centred therapy, has its problems over terminology and, while
the term kleshas has been translated in a variety of ways, in what follows I will simply speak of
the three ‘troubles’.
First, some explanation is needed if we are to grasp what these ‘troubles’ really amount to.
‘Greed’ is a common translation of the Sanskrit/Pali ‘lobha but other renderings can be ‘at
tachment’, ‘desire’, ‘clinging’, etc. Lobha is greedy possessiveness, having to possess things or
people, a devouring of the world so that I have everything within me. Lobha cannot tolerate
independence or separation, the valuing of something or someone for what they are independ
ently of me.
‘Hate’ is the common translation of ‘dosa’ but it is better translated as ‘aversion’, since ‘dosa’ can cover fear as well as hate. Dosa is in a way the opposite of lobha; in another way it is very similar. It is the opposite in that while lobha insists on ‘getting’ and ‘holding on to’, dosa insists on ‘getting rid of’ or ‘expelling from’ oneself. What they have in common is the insistence, the having to get or to get rid of. Hence they are often regarded as two aspects of the craving which leads to duhkha.
‘Illusion’ is the translation of ‘moha’ , also translated as ‘delusion’ or ‘ignorance’. It can seem
odd, on first acquaintance with Buddhism, that moha is regarded as a form of craving, along
with lobha and dosa. If moha is ignorance it is clearly a special form of ignorance, a motivated
ignorance. Moha is the craving not to see clearly, and is thus closely linked with the Western
psychological concept of repression. It also has the aspect of ‘inertia’ or ‘stupidity’, the clinging
to fixed or stereotyped ways of seeing oneself or others. According to Buddhism the central
illusion involved in moha is that of seeing one’s self as a real, independent, ‘solid’ entity. I will
return to that point shortly, but here for purposes of comparison we just need to note that moha
essentially has to do with illusory self-perception.
I suggest that the parallels between the three ‘troubles’ and the three core conditions go some
thing like this:
Moha (‘illusion’) seems to be related to incongruence. Incongruence is essentially self-misper
ception which involves denial or distortion of some aspects of what is really experienced. In
congruence, like moha , is motivated, and like moha is to do with illusion in the sphere of self-
overcoming lobha (‘greed’) is the overcoming of attachment to things, people,
ideas, the overcoming of the sense of having to have something, to possess, to
own. Overcoming lobha means
coming to accept that other people have their own reality, that they can’t
(without duhkha) be possessed. It means accepting life as it is, situations
for what they are, not insisting on changing them into what we must have. It
means not being attached rigidly to our own views, accepting that others see
things differently. Hence what will counteract
lobha is respect for people as they are. I suggest that this comes close to what
The overcoming of dosa is the overcoming of aversion, whether aversion from others or from
aspects of oneself. The feel of dosa that of cutting off, cutting out, expelling, getting away
from. Overcoming dosa means ‘bringing together’, ‘sharing’, ‘feeling at one with’. It means ac
ceptance of connections and relationships, of the fact that ‘No man is an island’. This is different
from the sort of acceptance which overcomes lobha - it is the acceptance that I am not entirely
separate from you, that we can move in and out of each other’s worlds. I suggest that it is
significantly related to the concept of ‘empathy’.
To summarise the comparison I am drawing up, I am linking the Buddhist moha (‘illusion’) with
‘incongruence’, Buddhist lobha (‘greed’) with lack of respect, and Buddhist dosa (‘aversion’) with
lack of empathy. It is interesting that in both systems of thought there is a tendency to focus on
one of the three troubles as being in a sense more fundamental than the other two. In client-
centred therapy it is incongruence which is the underlying trouble, while in Buddhism it is illu
So if we have to say in a single word what troubles people who are appropriately seeking
counselling, the answer in both systems is illusion/incongruence. Similarly the goal is enlight
enment/congruence. In Buddhism the way to enlightenment is through the elimination of crav
ing in its twin forms of greed and aversion. In client-centred therapy the way to self-actuali
sation or congruence is through acceptance in its twin forms of respect and empathy.
I am inclined to think that while ultimately enlightenment or self-actualisation has to do with
overcoming illusion and becoming congruent, the path to this involves acceptance or the over
coming of craving. What the therapist needs to do is to respect and empathise with the client. Of
course, the more genuine the therapist is the better, and this means that the therapist needs to
work at being as self-aware and as honest as he or she can be, but for all its importance
therapist genuineness comes into the picture in a different way from the other two condi
tions. Therapist genuineness comes in through the necessity that the therapist’s respect and em
pathy be genuine. This point may be more obvious if we reflect that an encounter with a very
genuine person need not be therapeutically valuable if their genuineness is expressed in ways
which have nothing to do with respect or empathy.
What craving amounts to is the sense of necessity, of having to do/not do (or be/not be)
something. The general notion of necessity is one which has been explored in various ways in
Western philosophy, but the particular insight we need here is due to Schopenhauer (1813), i.e.
the insight that all necessity is relative. That is, while there are indeed things which we must do
or be, this necessity is always relative to something else which for the moment goes unques
tioned. For instance I must get to the railway station by , but this is so only rela
tive to the fact that I must catch the train. And that is relative to the fact that I
Now there is a problem here about where the chain of necessities ends. It can hardly go on in
definitely, yet if it comes to a stop it seems that we are back with an absolute necessity. So in
our example of catching the train, let us look at where the chain of necessity does end. I must
nabel for that concert in the evening. - Why must you meet Annabel? - Well, I said I would meet
her, and I must keep my word .- Why must you keep your word? - Because otherwise I would
be an untrustworthy person. - Why mustn’t you be untrustworthy? - Well, I’m not like that,
that’s not me – and I’m not answering any more stupid questions!
It is somewhere around here that the chain seems to end: “I can’t be untrustworthy” - Why
not? - “Because then I wouldn’t be me”. I stop the questions where I feel that my self-concept
is in question. Surely, I say to myself, I am a particular sort of person, and that sort of person
doesn’t do that sort of thing. That is how we naturally see it, but from a Buddhist point of view
this perception is illusory. There is no fixed essential ‘self’. I don’t have to be trustworthy be
cause I don’t have to be any way at all. I may choose to act in a trustworthy way in this situa
tion, I may believe that it is always best to act in a trustworthy way, but I don’t have to act like
that and I don’t have to have that belief. There is no absolute ‘have to’. Lessing (translation: 1972, p. 16) put it beautifully in his Nathan the Wise. Nathan the Jew is talking to his dervish friend Al-Hafi: “What’s this I hear? Must? - A dervish must? Kein mensch muss mussen (no one should live by must), and certainly not a dervish.”
To summarise this section, duhkha arises from craving, and craving arises from the illusion that
there is a fixed self which I am, a self that has to be a certain way. In the Buddha’s words (Nanamoli
1972, p. 132): “When a man perceives impermanence, perception of not-self becomes estab
lished in him; and when a man perceives not-self, he arrives at the elimination of the conceit ‘I
am’, and that is nirvana here and now.” Removing the sense of a self results in removing the
sense that I have to be any particular way, I don’t even have to be good. And with the release
this necessity comes the sense of freedom: “Just as the
taste of salt, so too this Law and Discipline has one taste, the taste of liberation.”(Nanamoli
1972, p. 162)
As a parallel to this sense of the fluidity of the self let me quote the following passage from
Clients seem to move toward more openly being a process, a fluidity, a changing. They
are not disturbed to find that they are not the same from day to day, that they do not al
ways hold the same feelings toward a given experience or person, that they are not al
ways consistent. They are in flux, and seem more content to continue in this flowing cur
rent. The striving for conclusions and end states seems to diminish.
not a fixed entity; nor is it isolated from other selves.
that “it is one of the unexpected findings that have grown out of the client-centred approach”
that self-acceptance leads to greater acceptance of others. He goes on to suggest a theoretical
explanation for this, which is, roughly, that the denial of experiences incompatible with the
self-concept leads to defensiveness and distorted ways of seeing other people. Conversely,
with the elimination of the self-concept we become more accepting of (respectful towards)
our experiences, and feel less need to defend ourself against other people’s views of us. “When
there is no need to defend, there is no need to attack” (Rogers 1951, p. 521)
It is the reduction of the sense of the ‘fixed self’ which leads to the improvement in personal
relationships, and this theme is echoed in Buddhist teachings on the relation between ‘wisdom’
and ‘compassion’. ‘Wisdom’ is essentially the realisation of the illusory nature of the self, but
such realisation is held to be indissolubly linked with the growth of compassion. Even in our
ordinary unenlightened state we sometimes quite naturally lose our sense of having a separate
identity. A door is slammed and someone catches their fingers in it: here we may quite naturally
respond emotionally as if we had been hurt. From a Buddhist point of view there is no separate
self that has the pain, hence there is no important difference between me having it and you
having it. ’Selves’ drop out of the picture, so that for the enlightened person concern for ‘others’
arises as spontaneously as concern for ‘self’ . As Schopenhauer, that most Buddhist of Western
philosophers put it, “ ...the better person is the one who makes least difference between himself
and others, and does not regard them as absolutely non-ego; whereas to the bad person this
difference is great, in fact absolute.” (Schopenhauer, 1844; translation in Payne, 1974, p.
507). It is no doubt right to acknowledge that the idea of the dissolution of the self in Buddhism
goes well beyond the idea of the dissolution of the self-concept (or persona) in counselling
practice. Although I cannot discuss the matter here, I believe that the difference is closely
linked with the distinction between therapeutic and spiritual change. Therapy, I would say, aims
to soften or dissolve the persona (the mask, the self-concept), so as to allow the real experi
ential self or ego to emerge. The traditional spiritual paths, as I understand them, aim to soften
or dissolve the ego - the self-centred self itself.
The parallels I have discussed so far have centred around the conceptual frameworks of Buddhism and client-centred therapy. But there also seem to be parallels between what Buddhists and client-centred therapists do in their respective quests for increasing enlightenment and congruence.
I can do little more than touch on this comparison in the space available, but it is interesting
that in both approaches the basic procedures can hardly be called techniques, or even means to
an end: what we have, rather, are certain ways of embodying attitudes that are intrinsically
valuable. In client-centred therapy the central procedure is that of reflection by the therapist of
the client’s expression of feelings and thoughts. One function of this reflection, according to
ing and reflection manifest a high degree of respect for the client. Thus reflection is a simple
way of embodying the two aspects of acceptance which clients need if they are to become
more congruent. That is, the necessary closeness to the client’s world is manifested in the accu
racy of the therapist’s empathy, while the necessary distance is manifested in the way the
therapist respects the client’s view of things. What is so effective in close listening is the combi
nation of respect and empathy.
In Buddhism there are various types of meditation, but the two central practices are those
known as ‘tranquillity’ (shamatha) and ‘insight’ (vipashyana), or ‘stopping’ and ‘seeing’. Tran
quillity meditation involves simply focusing one’s attention on a particular experience, such as
the sensations involved in breathing. In this kind of meditation one does not make any judge
ments about one’s experiences, although one may notice that judging is taking place. The point
is simply to stay with the experience, allowing the mind to become still. In client-centred lan
guage tranquillity meditation involves respect for one’s experience in its immediacy and
uniqueness. (It is - in the traditional imagery - like the flickering flame of a lamp becoming
steady). Insight meditation is usually introduced after some proficiency in tranquillity has been
attained. When the meditator can ‘stay with’ an experience, the experience can then be reflected
on, and understood for what it is. (The steadily burning flame now becomes brighter and
clearer). In client-centred language this ‘insight meditation’ could well be called self-empathy,
a clear seeing into one’s own being. It is said that it is the union of tranquility and insight which
leads to, or constitutes, the enlightened state, a state of deep acceptance free of all craving (see
e.g. Namgyal, 1986; Thrangu, 1993; Thich Nhat Hanh, 1991).
It seems then that Buddhism and the client-centred approach use similar methods as well as
seeking essentially the same goal. The only really significant difference in method is that in cli
ent-centred therapy the client’s increasing congruence is facilitated by the empathy and respect
embodied in the therapist’s presence, whereas in Buddhism the meditator is developing self-
respect and self-empathy in a more direct way. (But I should add that it is a very common view
in Buddhism that meditation is difficult to learn without some personal contact with a teacher
who has attained a measure of tranquility and insight themself).
One of the advantages of theoretical understanding over simple empirical knowledge is that it
enables us to see not just that things are the way they are but why they are so. I would like now
to apply this principle to a question which may seem trivial at first, but which leads quickly into
quite deep waters. It is the question of why there are just three core conditions. Why not four,
six or more? It is true that fourth and further conditions have been suggested by several writ
ers, including myself (Purton, 1989), but none of these have quite caught on, whereas the three
original conditions have maintained themselves in therapeutic theory and practice far beyond
the confines of the client-centred approach. It is curiously the same in Buddhism. The list of
three troubles (attachment, aversion, ignorance) runs all through Buddhism. There is, it is
true, an extended list which includes two extra troubles, and it would be interesting to link these
with possible fourth and fifth conditions of therapy, and then there are ‘secondary afflictions’
such as laziness, spitefulness and so on, but the original list of three has remained at the core of
Buddhist thought. The question arises of whether there really is something significant about
there being just three?
I think there is, and that it has to do with the fact, as I maintain, that the three conditions (or
the three troubles) are not just a list of facilitative conditions for therapy (or just a list of afflic
tive emotions). Rather they are aspects of what could be called the structure of the personal. I
mean that to think about persons essentially involves thinking of relationships, and a relation
ship involves two people (or possibly two personal elements within a single person). Now
where there are two people their relationship involves either closeness, distance, or neither-
one-nor-the-other. Two people in a relationship are either together or apart, or they are in
some in-between or muddled state. There really are no further possibilities at this most basic
level of analysis.
Now we have seen that client-centred therapy, or the Buddhist path, involves moving from
states of greed, aversion and illusion towards states of empathy, respect and congruence. But
what this seems to amount to in terms of relationship is the following:
(1) A person moves from an unsatisfactory form of closeness (e.g. greed, possessiveness, at
tachment) to a more satisfactory form of closeness (i.e. empathic communion).What was unsat
isfactory about the initial closeness was that it had no element of distance or respect in it. The
person involved was not prepared to let the ‘winds of heaven’ dance through the relationship.
(2) A person moves from an unsatisfactory state of separation (e.g. aversion, fear, hate) to a
more satisfactory form of separation (i.e. respect). What was unsatisfactory about the separa
tion was that it had no element of togetherness or communion about it. The person involved
was not prepared to acknowledge or experience his or her common humanity with the other
These two situations are clearly opposites, where an extreme of either separation or closeness
is rectified by the therapeutic admixture of something of the opposite quality. What helps with
suffocating closeness is the distancing of respect; what helps with cold separation is the togeth
erness of empathy. The basic idea here is very familiar in Buddhism; Gampopa, a twelfth-cen
tury Tibetan teacher put it succinctly ; “...when we have found out which is our strongest emo
tion, we must seek its remedy. This is done in each case by meditating on the opposite quality”
(sGam.po.pa: translation 1959, p. 191).
But what of the third, and most central, therapeutic movement, the one from illusion to congru
ence? In terms of relationship I think it involves the movement from an unsatisfactory state of
not knowing where one is in a relationship, a state of painful confusion, to a satisfactory state
of not knowing where one is, i.e. a sparkling relationship where nothing is certain because
nothing is fixed, where we don’t quite know, perhaps, where our boundaries are, but where
that is a delight, a dance, a depth of relationship which defies any classification into ‘together’
A glimpse of this might be seen in the remarks of a participant in one of Roger’s workshops
(Rogers, 1980, p. 197):
it was like a meditative experience when I feel myself as a center of consciousness, very much part of the broader universal consciousness. And yet with that extraordi
nary sense of oneness, the separateness of each person present has never been more
In Buddhist terms the path leads away from fixed categories to the unfixed. Where there is
fixed closeness we need some separation; where there is fixed separation we need some to
gethemess. Paradoxically it is as if we need a degree of confusion, an alchemical mixing of the
opposites, and it is only out of the confusion, muddle, illusion, moha that the lotus blossom of
the enlightened mind emerges. In Nietzsche’s words: “0ne must still have chaos in oneself to be
able to give birth to a dancing star”. (Nietzsche 1883, 1, 5)
The structure of the personal, then, is the structure of relationship, and the basic form of rela
tionship is threefold: Together, Apart and Uncertain. Each of these modes of relation can exist in
a satisfactory or an unsatisfactory form. The unsatisfactory form of togethemess covers the
area of collusion, smothering, overprotection, infatuation and so on. The satisfactory form of
togethemess covers such things as sharing, communion and empathic understanding.
The unsatisfactory form of separation takes us into the region of hate, fear, rejection, isolation,
loneliness and so on. The satisfactory form of separation is the sphere of respect, independence,
valuing, prizing, etc.
The unsatisfactory form of uncertainty is confusion, muddle, ambivalence, self- deception,
mixed messages, etc. The satisfactory form of uncertainly is flexibility, idiosyncracy, openness,
freedom, and so on.
Looking at it like this, the movement along the therapeutic (or Buddhist) path consists in
moving from the unsatisfactory to the satisfactory version of each of the three modes of rela
tionship, i.e. from possessive closeness to empathic closeness, from aversive separation to re
spectful separation and from confusion to freedom.
I will end by returning from these rather ethereal heights to a question of therapeutic practice.
As client-centred therapists we try to offer our clients the core attitudes of respect, empathy
and genuineness, but we often have to make choices about which of these attitudes should
have priority with particular clients at particular times. Getting a balance between the core atti
tudes, a balance which is appropriate to the individual client, seems a comparatively unex
plored area in the client-centred approach. Rogers (1980, p. 160) does suggest ways in which
the balance may helpfully be tipped in different kinds of personal relationship, but he does not
ground these suggestions in his client-centred theory.
I want to suggest now some rough guidelines based on my previous discussion. It is that the
core attitude which is especially likely to be therapeutic is that which tends to balance out the
trouble which prevails in the client at the time. While all the troubles are to some extent with us
all the time, it seems likely that in particular clients, or during particular sessions, one or other
of the troubles may predominate. That is, the client’s difficulties at the time may be especially
rooted in either lobha, dosa or moha , so that the preferential emphasis would be respect for
the lobha client, empathy for the dosa client, and genuineness for the moha client.
The lobha client is one whose difficulties are rooted in such things as over-involvement, pos
sessiveness, demandingness, perfectionism, clinging to relationships, loving too much, and
maybe compulsions and addictions. Also in this territory, I think, is depression, which arises
when the demands of lobha are not met, when we lose what we feel we must have. Lobha is a
disorder of ‘closeness’, and the ‘antidote’ is a degree of separation. Hence my suggestion is
roughly that with depression, for example, or with clients who ‘love too much’ the preferred
emphasis in therapy should be on respect, rather than empathy. What the client typically needs
is to regain a sense of their own vitality and worth, so that the therapist’s respect, valuing or
prizing of the client seems crucial.
The dosa client will be one whose difficulties are rooted in such things as under-involvement,
social isolation, suspiciousness, fear, coldness, ‘loving too little’. Dosa is a disorder of separa
tion, and the ‘antidote’ is a degree of closeness. Hence my suggestion is that with dosa the pre
ferred emphasis in therapy should be on empathy rather than respect - I do not mean of course
that dosa clients should not be prized and respected, but that the ‘distance’ that is involved in
respect is something that these clients probably have enough of already. In dosa clients there is
often beneath the surface a tinge of arrogance, a sense of being ‘special’ and set apart from other
people; in other words a kind of self-respect is already there. What is deeply missing is the
sense of relatedness, of sharing, of being-with-others, and it is this sense of isolation which
the therapist’s empathy can begin to dissolve. (It is tempting to see schizophrenia as involv
an extreme form of dosa , and in this
connection it is interesting that
extensive study of schizophrenia “that those patients receiving from their therapists a high de
gree of accurate empathy as rated by unbiased judges, showed the sharpest reduction in
schiozophrenic pathology”.(Rogers, 1980, p. 151)
The moha client will be one whose difficulties are rooted in such things as confusion, aimless
ness, uncertainty, lack of a sense of what one wants, lack of a sense of meaning or purpose in
life, lack of a sense of identity, and so on. It is hard to empathise with confusion, and it is also
hard to get a sufficient sense of who the person is in order to prize and respect them. So with
moha , I think, the therapist is thrown back on his or her own genuineness or authenticity. With
moha everything is uncertain, there are no tracks to follow, and the therapist can only trust in
his or her ability to be at home in trackless country, to trust that it is out of chaos that the
dancing star will be born.
These are of course only suggestions, and rather impressionistic groupings of types of counsel
ling problems. Nevertheless it does seem to me that the suggestions are in principle open to
empirical assessment. If it should turn out in practice that depression responds best to high
levels of empathy, and schizoid states respond best to high levels of respect, well, then I would
have to do some rethinking!
In comparing two paths as remote from each other in time and geography as Buddhism and
client-centred therapy, there is clearly a danger of spinning a web of connections which is not
very solidly grounded. However, I hope I have done enough to show that the connections be
tween Buddhism and client-centred therapy are real and substantial. Both, after all, are con
cerned with the general aim of relieving the unsatisfactoriness of our lives; both see this unsat
isfactoriness as rooted in our failure to be ourselves. Both take as axiomatic that our nature is
inherently trustworthy, though it has in various ways become distorted or obscured. Both see a
significant part of this distortion as arising from our adopting an external locus of evaluation,
an external refuge in the views and attitudes of other people. Both see this unfortunate situa
tion as remediable, since both conceive the human being in terms of process and flux, rather
than in terms of a substantial unchanging essence.
So much is the backdrop; what I have tried to do in this paper is to explore the question of
whether there are important parallels in the finer details of the path that leads away from
duhkha. Such parallels do seem to exist, and I am beginning to find them helpful in my counsel-
ling work. I am more aware now of the difference it may make when I lean more towards re
spect than towards empathy, or vice versa. But also I feel more sure about what I am doing as a
client-centred counsellor. Given the lack of solid empirical support for the effectiveness of
client-centered counselling (Levant & Shlien, 1984), I am glad to be able to ground my work
in a tradition tried and tested over so many centuries. I do not for a minute doubt that other
groundings are possible for client-centred practice; I suspect that such groundings can be
found in any genuine spiritual tradition, though not necessarily in the mainstream expression of
the tradition. Let me close with a quotation from Rabindranath Tagore:
The night has ended.
Put out the light of thine own narrow corner smudged with smoke.
The great morning which is for all appears in the East.
Let its light reveal us to each other who walk on the same path of pilgrimage.
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