As I see it, one area of common ground between poetry, person-centred counselling and Buddhism is the way they transcend the narrow confines of the self and embrace the transpersonal. Our relationships with one another are central to each of them.
It's been a long time since I've reflected on why I started writing poetry. The reasons are varied and complex, but one important factor was my sense of isolation. I was a frequently lonely young person who passionately wanted to communicate my burgeoning inner life and be heard by other people. I couldn't do that in any of my relationships, and at the time, I wasn't able to make relationships that could meet my needs.
Thus, poetry became in part a way of communicating meaningfully with other people; of expressing myself and finding people who would listen. It was a survival strategy of sorts. In the absence of satisfactory relationships, it was the best thing I could do.
According to person-centred theory, the self is socially-constructed. Well-being is fostered by satisfactory relationships with our primary caregivers when we are younger. Conversely, complications occur when the nature of those relationships is conditional. This gives rise to conditions of worth in the structure of the developing self that then make it difficult for the individual to develop according to his or her own organismic experiencing process.
Person-centred counselling focuses specifically on creating the type of relationship in which conditions of worth dissolve and clients can realign themselves with their actualising tendency. This relationship is characterised by empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard.
Mental health, then, is to a large extent dependent on the quality of our relationships with other people. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, 'I am because you are.' The self thrives or atrophies according to the degree the individual encounters or is able to foster relationships with the abovementioned qualities.
Returning to myself, in my early thirties my sense of isolation began to feel intolerable. I found myself needing to move away from relationships where there was an absence of relating empathically and no openness or mutual positive regard. My creative coping strategy was no longer enough and I wanted to engage more directly with other people.
One explanation for my move into the field of counselling was to redress this imbalance and to continue connecting with other people, only more intimately. Blogging is one more way of continuing that trend and following one of our strongest primal instincts.
The Buddhist philosophy of no-self extends this idea by rejecting the existence of the self other than on a conventional level of analysis. Reality, it is said, is an interdependent flow of psychic and physical phenomena. In other words, the ego is an illusion - useful, perhaps, practically - but when we see clearly we realise there is no fixity or separateness, only change and connectedness. As the Zen tradition believes, we are already enlightened but our ignorance and fear and attachment to our selves prevents us from experiencing it.
Interestingly, the sort of absorbed state I sometimes achieve writing poetry, or prior to writing, is similar to the concentration developed through meditation. This can result in what feels like a release from the self and a direct experiencing of what Buddhism calls reality.
Likewise, in counselling, in the the right conditions the client may feel safe enough to lower his/her ego-defences (to slip into psychodynamic vernacular!) and experience a profound degree of intimacy. Such moments of 'relational depth' may assume a spiritual significance and resemble what Buber calls the I-Thou relationship. Thinking about it, poems, fully realised, enact that very same dynamic too.