Explaining empathetic attunement in India

As some of you may know, I’m preparing to take a group of my graduate students to India next week for a two-week whirlwind tour of the northern parts of the country. One of many highlights of the trip is a two-day conference at NK college in Mumbai. I’m the keynote speaker, and of course, my topic is play therapy.

I get to talk about play therapy a lot. Usually, I’m talking to professionals or grad students who already have a pretty decent idea of what play therapy might be. At this conference, I get to introduce the idea of play therapy to about 150 college students (mostly psychology majors), professors, and professionals who have probably never heard of play therapy, AND who live in a very different cultural context from the one I inhabit.

To call this a bit of a challenge is a serious understatement.

I’ve been working on my outline and slides for months now, and I’m not satisfied with them yet. I’ve got the usual suspects lined up: Virginia Axline’s 8 principles, the basic attending skills in play therapy, how to set limits, some brain stuff. But I don’t yet think I’ve captured the IT that makes play therapy such a powerful modality for working with kids.

When I think about what the IT, the driving force of play therapy, is I get lost for words (which is not a common occurrence, trust me). What can I call the magic that happens in the space between the child and the play therapist? You know, that feeling of being invited into the inner world of the child’s imagination and thoughts, being in sync, attuned, congruent, aligned? This, in my opinion, is what makes therapy tick. I find it to operate most powerfully when I’m helping my client access his or her creative, affective brain, getting out of the rigid, verbal, linear left brain and into the visual, contextual right brain. I’ve just never found a perfect English word to describe it, and now I have to find a way to describe this to a group of people for whom English is a second, third, or fourth language.

When I teach beginning counselors here in the United States, I often use Judith Jordan’s idea of mutual empathy to explain the “it” of therapy. Mutual empathy differs from one-way empathy in therapy in its bi-directionality. In most ways of working, therapists are trained to use empathy to enter the world of the client. In mutual empathy, the therapist feels the clients feelings with him or her, and helps the client to understand that their feelings impact the therapist as well; that their feelings matter to the therapist. I believe that this process occurs naturally in engaged play and expressive arts therapy. Left brain-to-left brain contact, which science now tells us helps grow and repair relational neural pathways, may be the “it” I’m raving about today.

But how to explain that to 150 Indian students and scholars? In an hour?

I’m still working on it. However, I have found a word in Urdu (a cousin of the language of old Persia which is widely spoken in northern India, also the language of some of the greatest poets who ever lived) that might help: manoos. It seems to be a little different from our word empathy, and from the Hindi word for empathy, which means the same as the English. Manoos seems (I say “seems” because I’m definitely not a linguist nor do I speak Urdu) to impy a feeling of care and warmth for another person or an animal such that it/they are no longer a stranger and there is a mutual affection and understanding between yourself and the other.

Maybe manoos isn’t the answer to explaining the empathetic attunement therapists must use, but I’m going to move ahead with it for now. Maybe manoos will at least start a conversation about how inadequate language can be in the face of felt experiences? I’m going to keep wrestling with this, and hoping for a flash of enlightenment.

Rumi, one of many brilliant poets who wrote in Persian, a cousin to Urdu, wrote:

I closed my mouth and spoke to you in a hundred silent ways.”

Maybe that’s the definition of tuning in?

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